six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category

Vlog Part 2

six photos of book Dark Nights of the Soul, me with a box of books, me at book signing, Self-Published E-Book Awards, Writer's Digest magazine cover and page with my name as winner of the nonfiction category
In the last photo, notice the Nonfiction winner (humble brag)

The May/June issue of Writer’s Digest is out, listing the winners of the 2019 Self-Published E-book Awards. You’ll see in this montage my lovely wife put together, I am listed as the winner in the Nonfiction category. I know I’ve told you about it, but seeing it in print is so exciting.

I have my own YouTube channel called Almost Ordained. You can follow the link to check it out or even subscribe. “Almost ordained” because I have two seminary degrees, but never got ordained. That means I have the theological and biblical training, but I can’t pastor a church or perform sacraments or weddings. My sister took up that mantle.

I have links to the latest episodes below, along with running times so you can gauge whether you have time for it. This is an example of a vlog (video blog). As the name implies, it is a blog done on video. Keeping some kind of diary or journal is often helpful in getting through a stressful time, so I encourage you to do it, whether on video, your blog, or the old-fashioned way.

Episodes

Kingdom Priorities (23:18)

Wisdom from Psalm 30 (30:05)

A New Haircut, The Stockdale Paradox, James 1:2-5; and Letting Perseverance Complete Its Work (28:08)

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet (58:07)

Coronavirus Confessions, and Why Gardening Is Good for Depression (12:08)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet (30:39)

The Second Sign of a False Prophet

In an earlier post, I talked about the first sign to look for in a false prophet. If they prophesy something in the name of the LORD, and it does not come to pass, the LORD did not speak that. They spoke presumptuously. They are a false prophet (Deut 18:20-22).

But what if what they say does come to pass? Could he/she still be a false prophet? The Old Testament warned the Israelites it is indeed possible. Deuteronomy 13:1-5 told the Israelites even if what the prophets or those who divine by dreams say comes to pass, but they tell you to follow gods other than the LORD who redeemed you from slavery in Egypt, you must not follow them. Any prophet who tells them to forsake the way of the LORD their God and follow other gods was to be put to death. As I said in another episode, ancient Israel was a theocracy, but we are a republic. We can’t put false prophets to death here, and I’m glad for that. Because of that, I’m going to focus more on the New Testament.

Jesus said, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mat 24:11 NRS). And again, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24 NRS). What stands out for me in this is:

  1. False prophets will produce great signs and omens.
  2. False prophets will lead many astray.
  3. Even the elect, those who are saved, can be led astray.

So don’t think if you received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you can’t be fooled by false prophets, because you have the Holy Spirit within you. Oh yes, you can.

A Warning to the Galatians (and Us)

Paul said this to the Galatians.

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!”

(Gal 1:8-9 NRS).

If it were anyone else, I would say, “What an egomaniac. He won’t let anyone say anything contrary to what he told them. That’s what cult leaders do.” But over the years, I have heard gospels contrary to what we received from Christ and the Apostles. They led me astray, so I understand why he gives such a dire warning about this. The members of the church in Galatia had the Holy Spirit. False prophets or false teachers came among them, and they were fooled. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.

And notice, Paul even says if we … proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you. He includes himself in this curse. He has shut the door on ever changing the gospel he first proclaimed to them. Ain’t gonna be no, “You know what? I was wrong. What I told you before wasn’t the real gospel. Let me proclaim a different gospel to you now.” No, he said if I ever do that, let me be accursed. That was how important it was to get this right.

And he also says … if an angel from heaven should proclaim a different gospel to you, let him be accursed. One would expect an angel to be able to produce some of the great signs and omens Jesus referred to. But if he proclaims a gospel different from what they received, they must not believe him or follow him. So is it possible that someone could produce signs and omens in Jesus’ name while proclaiming a different gospel? Absolutely.

When I Followed a Different Gospel

One church I was in was all about “the anointing,” which was supposed to manifest in signs and wonders, like the spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10. In the vast majority of churches today, you are not going to see the kind of signs and wonders that are in the New Testament. Some people point to that and say, “That church is dead.” The implication is, “We’re not dead. We have the supernatural gifts. We have the anointing.”

I used to believe them. Now, I’m not so sure. If they really have those supernatural gifts of healing, miracles, signs, and omens, or whatever, as Jesus and the Apostles did, they should get the same results. But instead, when they fail to get those results, they make excuses that Jesus and the Apostles never had to make.

Our preacher referred to one particular televangelist in every sermon, and everyone in the church thought he was so anointed because of the healings he did, and the way people fell down in his services. It’s called being slain in the Spirit, and it’s quite common in charismatic and Pentecostal services. Anyway, our preacher was quoting this televangelist more than he quoted Jesus. That is always a bad sign. I mean, are we really getting the Gospel of Jesus Christ when he talks about some televangelist more than Christ?

Tithe or Die

The final straw for me came when he quoted the televangelist saying, “I can’t heal you, because you’re not tithing.”

I have read the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular, multiple times over my life. One thing I know for sure. Jesus NEVER told ANYONE, “I can’t heal you because you’re not tithing.” He never connected tithing with getting healed. He would go into towns, and every sick person who was brought to him got healed. Not everyone who tithed. Everyone period.

But here’s a trick question. What if after saying that, they had some signs and wonders and portents that came true? Should we believe them? If they claim to serve the Lord Jesus and tell us, “You must give me 10% of your income before God will answer your prayers,” remember the Lord Jesus never said that. Even if what you say comes true, I’m going to borrow from Deuteronomy 13 and say, you must not heed the words of those prophets who tell you to follow a Jesus that neither you nor your ancestors have known. Okay, Deuteronomy did not mention Jesus specifically. But if we call him Lord, the meaning is the same.

They will usually use Malachi to justify this. “But Malachi 3:9-10 says you are cursed with a curse because you are robbing God by not bringing your tithes. God can’t bless what is cursed.”

God can’t bless what is cursed? That’s not in the scripture. You just made that up. That’s what I mean that they make excuses Jesus never had to make. Jesus raised people from the dead. You can’t get any more cursed than that. Don’t tell me God can’t bless what is cursed. That is a gospel contrary to the one we as the body of Christ received.

To Lead Astray Even the Elect

Even if some of their prophecies come true, don’t follow them. Even if some people get healed, or they produce signs, omens, and wonders that make you gasp and think the anointing is on them, don’t follow them. And don’t give them your money, whether they call it tithes, offerings, or “sowing a seed.” The gifts of God cannot be purchased with money (Acts 8:18-20). If they claim you can be healed by giving them money or solve your financial problems by giving them money, that is a different gospel. Do not believe them. Do not follow them. And do not give them your money.

Yes, Jesus received money from those who wanted to support his ministry, but he never charged anyone for healing, miracles, or any blessings of the Holy Spirit. And the Apostles followed that example. Read the book of Acts or the letters of Paul, Peter, and John, and you will not find any example that they made people pay for the gifts of the Spirit.

And I can’t believe I have to say this, but if they speak hatred from the pulpit, that is not the Holy Spirit. Even if they prophesy things that come true, even if they show the signs and omens Jesus mentioned, remember Jesus also said these are the kind who will lead you astray.

The Holy Spirit Is Not Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, or Xenophobic

“Social distancing is for pansies.” Yes, a preacher actually said that. Not only is he putting the public health at risk. He’s using a homophobic slur to belittle anyone who follows social distancing guidelines from the CDC. That is not the Holy Spirit. That is not the anointing. In the late eighties, one of them “prophesied” that the homosexual community in the US would be destroyed in ’94 or ’95 by fire. And the congregation cheered.

  1. It did not come true, so he failed the first test. That alone proves he is a false prophet.
  2. He did not tell them to stop cheering, so he failed the “love test.” This is a different gospel. If you follow him, he will lead you astray.
  3. The fact that they would cheer that means he has been failing to teach them the Gospel for a long time.

What do I mean by the “love test”? Jesus said our love has to extend even to our enemies. I don’t care if you think it’s a sin. I don’t care if you know it’s a sin. Every one of them is a person Jesus died for (Rom 5:8). You still have to love them, because he loves them.

The Holy Spirit is not racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic. Anyone who preaches that in Jesus’ name is preaching a different Gospel. What if they do great signs and omens? It is still a different Gospel. I don’t care if an angel or some so-called apostle or prophet promises I will get those gifts of healing or prophecy that I used to chase after if I will follow them, that is a different Gospel, and I want nothing to do with it.

God Is Love

So we can recognize a different Gospel when we hear it, let’s remind ourselves what the Bible says about the love of God in 1 Corinthians 13.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

(Verses 1-2)

Notice speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries, faith so as to remove mountains. These are some of the supernatural gifts they thought proved the Holy Spirit was in their midst. But Paul tells them signs and omens are nothing without the love of God.

If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

(Verse 3)

Giving 10% or even all your possessions to them is nothing without love. It won’t make God answer your prayers.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

(Verses 4-8a).

Love rejoices in the truth, not lies, no matter how good they make you feel. False prophets have been lying to us a lot, especially about the Coronavirus.

But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

(Verses 8b-10)

Even when they had the supernatural gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, they did not make the congregation complete or “anointed.” Even at our best, we only know in part. Even when they prophesied, it was only in part. Love is the only thing that makes us complete.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(Verses 11-13 NRS)

Jesus preached a Gospel of love so all-encompassing it left no one out, even people that we may wish were left out. That is the greatest challenge of following Jesus, but also the most rewarding. And if anyone comes to you with signs and omens but preaches a different gospel, you heard what Paul said. Let him/her be accursed.

-Grace and peace to you.

If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing. And see the Recommended tab at the top. In the category of Depression, you should check out Carrie M. Wrigley’s Your Happiness Toolkit, now available in audiobook.

Confessions of an Ex-Prophet

Announcement

So many people staying at home now. Some of you are busier than ever with your kids at home instead of school. But some people have some extra time on their hands. I’ve been wanting to start a podcast, and now seems like a good time. So if you are bored sitting at home, you’ll have something new to listen to. The first episodes will be on faith in a time of Coronavirus. I’ll let you know when it’s up. In the meantime, here is a script for what I think will be the first episode.


I want to talk to the prophets of America. I know usually in December and January, you give a word to the faithful for the coming year. I have gone back and listened to what you predicted for 2020. One minister made it pretty easy. He asked 20 prophets to make predictions for 2020 and played them all. 20 prophets. I transcribed the program. Here is a word cloud I made from it.

word cloud from transcript of January broadcast of "20 Prophecies for 2020"
What’s missing?

God is big, no surprise. Going is big, probably because you were talking about what God is “going” to do in 2020. Year is big, of course, because you were talking about the new year. I also see America is prominent, again no surprise. I see Gregorian at the bottom and Hebrew at the top to the right, because a couple of them talked about the alignment of the year 2020 on the Gregorian calendar with the year 5780 on the Hebrew calendar. Because 5+7+8+0=20. I’m sorry, but I don’t call that an alignment. 20 is not the same number as 2020.

But regardless of that, you know what I don’t see? Coronavirus, COVID-19, or pandemic. No mention of a virus at all. Nothing that would even suggest what we’re going through now. I know the Biblical writers knew nothing about viruses, but you still could have used some Biblical term, like plague, or pestilence, or disease. The word “shaken” or “shaking” should be on there. I did hear that a few times. This could be called a shaking. But even then, the rest of their message did not sound like they were anticipating this current crisis. One of them did say we would see a shaking in the first four months. That is the closest any one of them came to predicting this. And a couple of others mentioned a “shaking like nothing before.” Again, that could be a reference to what we’re experiencing now. But one of them specified “the soil will be shaken.” That sounds more like an earthquake than a pandemic.

So out of 20 prophets, who claim to hear directly from God and speak directly for God the word for today, only a couple of them even hinted at what we are going through now. And on top of that, one of them said she had just come from a conference of 42 prophets from around the world. I didn’t get the transcript of that. But if any of them saw a pandemic coming, she didn’t say so.

And you see decade is prominent? Several of them talked about not only what the year would bring, but also the decade, because this is the beginning of a new decade. Except it’s not. The decade does not begin in 2020. It begins in 2021. Even if you don’t know when the decade begins, God does. Why would God make a mistake like that?

What is this the year of? According to them, it’s the year of fire. The year of evangelism. The year of the Father. The year of the voice. The year of the mouth. In reality, it is the year of Coronavirus, the year of pandemic. Why didn’t that make it onto your list of “Year of”s? Is it possible you heard a voice or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t?

First Sign of a False Prophet

Back in Biblical times, this was how they detected a false prophet. This is from the English Standard Version (ESV).

… when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

(Deu 18:22 ESV)

Are you going to curse me for pointing out that your prophecies are not coming true? Go ahead. This verse says I need not be afraid of you. You prophesied miracles, healings, and the manifest glory of God in worship, where people are gathered together. They will even gather in stadiums, you said. Are people gathering together now? No, because we have to maintain social distancing. Stadiums are closed, along with businesses, and schools. Churches are closed and moving their services online. They aren’t gathering together.

You prophesied healings. Instead, people are getting sick at an alarming rate. You prophesied prosperity. Look what’s happening to the economy. People are losing jobs in record numbers. Does that sound like prosperity? You prophesied that every dream would come true this year for God’s faithful. This is not what we were dreaming.

How do we know the prophet is false? Deuteronomy 18:22 could not have summed it up any better. … if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken. You spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. And since most of you were on that program because you’ve been doing this for years, I think it’s safe to guess that this is not the first time. These were not the first prophecies that did not come true, meaning, you spoke words in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak. You spoke presumptuously. Again, I ask, is it possible that you heard something or saw a vision that you thought was from God, but it wasn’t? It’s time to own up to that fact.

A Democracy, Not a Theocracy

What was the penalty in ancient Israel for speaking false prophecies? According to Deuteronomy 18:20, the prophet was put to death. There are some indications in the Bible that was not practiced consistently, but still, that was supposed to be the penalty. Think about it. Speaking a word in the name of the Lord that the Lord did not speak? That is taking the Lord’s name in vain, a violation of one of the top ten commandments. We usually think of taking the Lord’s name in vain as saying like, OMG! Or Jesus Chr…! But that is a minor offense compared to false prophecies. When you speak in the name of the Lord, and God did not speak to you? You speak in the name of the Lord presumptuously? That is much more serious.

So in ancient Israel, they were supposed to put someone to death for that. We can’t do that here. Israel was a theocracy, and we are not. In a theocracy, you can put someone to death for blasphemy or speaking the Lord’s name in vain. You can’t do that in a democracy or republic. And personally, I’m glad for that. Because if we were still living by that standard, I shouldn’t be alive today.

Redemption Is Possible

Sorry for scaring you with that talk of the death penalty, but I want you to get this is serious. And I want you to know redemption is possible. We are not in the theocracy of ancient Israel, so no one is going to stone you to death or put you in front of a firing squad. But you are still accountable to God for every careless or presumptuous word you utter in God’s name (Mat 12:36-37). But redemption is possible.

I did not get on stage or broadcast prophecies to the public, but I did say things to people who came forward in church services seeking a word from God. And I spoke in the name of the Lord. But looking back, I have to admit I had no idea if it was the Lord or not. And sometimes, it was clearly not the Lord. How do I know? Because it did not come to pass, or it led me or others to do the wrong thing. I know what it is like to hear something and think it is from God and then find out it wasn’t. It’s a really tough pill to swallow. It will make you question everything you thought you knew about God. But even though it is scary as hell, it’s a good thing when you own up to it.

I Spoke Presumptuously Too

I used to belong to a church that encouraged people to flow in the gifts of the Spirit according to 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Part of your task as a believer, they said, was to uncover which of those gifts was yours. I felt drawn to gifts of prophecy and healing. I didn’t know if either of them was for me, but I thought if I didn’t try, I would never know. I was cautious at first, but with practice I grew bolder. One time, a young man came forward who I knew pretty well. We were both involved in the youth ministry of the church. He had just been married, and he was worried about being able to provide for both him and his wife, and potentially children down the road, and he said he wanted some security. I could hear the distress in his voice. I told him something like, “I hear the Lord saying, security does not come from your job. Security only comes from trusting God. The Lord will provide.”

Did the Lord really say that? Or was I just parroting what I had always heard in the church? “Trust God for your needs. God will provide, no matter what the circumstances. Jehovah Jireh, the LORD will provide.” To this day, I don’t know. I do know that even as I said it, I felt like a fraud. I was single. I had never had to take care of anyone other than myself, and I was barely doing that. Still, I had money coming in. I knew where it was coming from. I had security. And whenever it looked like I might lose it, did I say, “That’s okay. I trust God. God will provide. I’ll be fine.” Oh, no. I was scared spitless (as in, when you get scared, your mouth gets dry). Who was I to “prophesy” to my friend, “Don’t worry. Be happy. Trust God”? I didn’t know it for a fact, but it sure felt like I had spoken in the name of the Lord presumptuously.

I didn’t do much prophesying in the church after that. And when I did, I played it a whole lot safer. I wouldn’t tell people to do things I wasn’t doing myself.

I Wasn’t the Only One

As I saw how people in that church were pursuing the gifts of the Spirit (see 1 Cor 12:1-11 for the full context), I became more and more disillusioned with the whole thing. I saw people prophesying things that did not come true. Not just church leaders, or members who believed they had the gift of prophecy. I’m including the televangelists they held up as being the most anointed people on earth, people like the ones on this “Prophecies for 2020” program. They “prophesied” things “under the anointing” that did not come true. They told people, “Your cancer is gone. Your arthritis is gone. Your MS is gone.” None of it came true. How many times did I go forward to get healed of my Irritable Bowel Syndrome? I can’t even remember. Guess what? Never healed.

Jesus himself told us, “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mat 24:11 NRS).

I know you never thought you would be one of those false prophets. Neither did I. You thought your gift of prophecy was real. So did I. But if you know deep down you are a fraud, it’s time to come clean. Look at what you prophesied for 2020 and compare that with what is really happening. It doesn’t match. One “prophet” even said on February 28, it would not become a pandemic. Did you miss the news? It became a pandemic. You said God doesn’t do anything without first telling God’s prophets. Why didn’t God give any of you a heads up?

Giving up Too Early?

You might be thinking, “The year is not over. The good things I prophesied can still come to pass.” Maybe so. At some point, we will get control of the Coronavirus. We will be able to contain it, because of measures like shelter-in-place, social distancing, and quarantines, and hopefully, because of new medicines and vaccines. After that, we’ll see people gathering in churches and stadiums again. When people know it’s safe to go out, not only for themselves but for their elderly neighbors and relatives as well, they will start shopping and spending money again. The economy will bounce back when people get back to work. That’s not the prosperity you prophesied. That’s just the natural order of things. You don’t get any credit for that. And besides, we don’t know if the economy will be as strong as before, even after Coronavirus is gone. Some businesses closed that might never reopen.

Where are the healings you prophesied? The US now tops the world in number of Coronavirus cases. We need those healings, and we need them now. Did you claim you were anointed to heal with the same Spirit that anointed Jesus to go about healing all who were oppressed of the Devil? Are you going to do like Jesus and go into New York or California or one of the other hot spots and say, “Let all who are sick come and be healed in the name of Jesus”? The fact that you’re not doing that, that you have never done that, speaks volumes to me. If you do that and have cures medically verified, then whatever I say about false prophets and fake healers doesn’t apply to you.

The Truth Will Set You Free, But …

But if you know you have prophesied things that did not come true, redemption is possible. I won’t sugarcoat it for you. It will be painful. You know, when Jesus said, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Joh 8:32 NRS), I think he should have added, “But first it will hurt a lot.” Here’s what you need to do. 1) Confess; 2) Repent; 3) Get back to basics; 4) Embrace uncertainty; 5) Focus on the Fruit rather than the Gifts.

Confess

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

(1Jo 1:9 NRS)

You will have to confess that you spoke presumptuously. You will have to admit you were wrong. Not just to God, but to the people who have been watching you in church, on YouTube, on TV, or whatever. See, I told you it would hurt. But the good news is God is faithful. If you confess, God will forgive and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. The people may or may not understand, but you have got to get right with God before you can minister to them.

Repent

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

(Mar 1:14-15 NRS)

Jesus came to announce the Good News that the kingdom of God has come near. What is the proper response? Repent. Repent means stop and turn around. Turn away from the path you are on and follow the way of the Good Shepherd. That means you must stop prophesying. In fact, you should give up your ministry entirely for a time, so you can finally unlearn the errors you’ve been preaching.

“But the Lord called me to preach and prophesy.”

Maybe. But did you or did you not prophesy falsely and presumptuously, even when you were sure it was the voice of the Lord? That shows how spiritually disoriented you’ve become. If you try to preach to people now, you are the blind leading the blind.

When I first started hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, I was thrilled. I could hear God speaking to me. But then, the truth became unavoidable. That voice that for years I thought was the Holy Spirit within me was something else entirely. Was it the Devil, or was it my own imagination? I don’t know, but either way the result was the same. My whole world crumbled to the ground. But that was when my relationship with God really began. Because I finally learned to follow the truth, wherever it led. Even if I had to let go of some of my most cherished beliefs, I made a commitment to accept the truth.

I don’t care how deeply you feel it, or how sincerely you believe it, or how many Bible verses you quote. If the facts on the ground say it’s not true, it’s not true. We don’t need false prophets speaking from their own imagination, wishful thinking, Bible verses taken out of context, the devil, or whatever they are hearing. We don’t need to hear, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We need the truth. That is the only thing that will set us free.

I know this hurts. Being a prophet has become part of your identity. It always hurts when we find out we are not what we thought we were. I’ve been there. But how can you effectively minister in the name of the Lord when you yourself are following a voice that is not of the Lord?

I think you should take a sabbatical, so you can get reoriented to the truth. But if you won’t do that, then at least tell the people since you prophesied things that did not come true, you are clearly not qualified to be a prophet. You will preach the Gospel, but you will not be giving any more prophetic words. Furthermore, there will be no more prophetic words in your services or prayer meetings from you or anyone else. There was no judgment in the Bible for not speaking false prophecies, only for speaking them.

“But people will leave the church. We will lose money.”

Do you remember Jesus saying, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul” (Mar 8:36 NIV)? God does not call ministers to scratch itching ears by telling them what they want to hear. God calls ministers to feed his sheep by making the truth of the Gospel known to them. I was so disoriented I didn’t even know what the Gospel was anymore, which brings me to the next step.

Get Back to Basics

Remember this verse?

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

(Joh 3:16 NRS)

Martin Luther called this the Gospel in a nutshell. God loved the world so much that God gave God’s only[-begotten] Son for us. Through Christ, we have eternal life.

And notice, it’s not about health, wealth, success, and making every dream come true. Nothing about prophecies, healings, miracles, signs, or wonders. It’s about receiving the gift of eternal life, which means life in relationship with God. God loves us. That is the Gospel, and Gospel literally means “good news.”

Are we worthy of that love? Absolutely not. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). That is the reason God gave his only Son. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRS).

Our relationship with God is broken because of sin. But Christ died so our sins could be forgiven, and our relationship with God restored. That is eternal life. And because our relationship with God has been restored, the kingdom of God has come near.

And eternal life does not just mean we go to heaven when we die, though that is also part of the good news. Your relationship with God begins in this life and will continue even after you die.

Paul told it this way to the Corinthians.

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

Christ died for our sins. He was buried. He was raised on the third day. All in accordance with the scriptures. God promised in the scriptures to send a Messiah, who would bring righteousness and the kingdom of God to this earth. Jesus Christ was that Messiah, who fulfilled God’s will according to the scriptures. How do we know? He rose from the dead in accordance with the scriptures. Death did not end his life, and it will not end ours. Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:38-39).

Those are the basics. When was the last time you preached a good sermon on that? You don’t need any supernatural gifts of the Spirit to share the basics. Get to know them again before you even think about taking the stage, the microphone, or the pulpit again.

Embrace Uncertainty

When I first had to face up to the fact that the brand of Christianity I was following was wrong, I mean, not just wrong but egregiously wrong, I didn’t know what to do. This scripture came to mind.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

(Mic 6:8 NRS)

The gifts were not working for me, so I thought I had fallen out of favor with God. I thought God was going to require some great sacrifice, and I didn’t think I could go through with it. Praise God, I didn’t have to. Just as the angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, the Lord stayed my hand from making one of the worst mistakes of my life.

God wasn’t looking for any great sacrifice to prove how much I loved him. God didn’t require me to obey every voice that said it was God without testing it first. God wasn’t blocking gifts or blessings from me because I didn’t instantly obey the voice I once thought was God but was beginning to question. God did not want me inventing new doctrines that cause division based on a Bible verse here or there that I or someone else took out of context.

What does God require of me and you? Do justice. Treat others with love and kindness. Walk humbly with your God. That’s all.

Now, if you are used to thinking of yourself as a prophet, that last one will be the most difficult. When you thought you were one of the chosen few mouthpieces of God on earth, you walked with God but not humbly. After my great humbling, I had to rebuild my faith starting from zero. Certainty was no longer a virtue. It was a sin. If I was to continue walking with God, I had to completely redefine the most basic terms for a life of faith, like faith, Gospel, discipleship, obedience, the Holy Spirit, sin, holiness, the Word of God, salvation, healing, redemption, the truth, etc. I had to admit I didn’t know what any of those terms meant anymore, and I was going to have to learn from scratch. My walk with God was now a limp. I could not even stand in faith without leaning on Jesus. That may sound scary. You may think you want to avoid that at all costs. Truth is, if it had been my choice, I wouldn’t have chosen to go through that. But I’m telling you, that is where I learned what it means to walk humbly with God.

Some people think faith means being certain about whatever you say. “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Or, “The Lord told me this.” “God told me that.” “This is the word of the Lord for 2020.” And all the while, God is saying, “Leave me out of this!”

Faith is confidence or assurance, but it is not certainty. There is no humility in certainty. You can’t learn and you can’t listen when you are certain of everything. There is no way we as mortals can know everything, so embrace uncertainty. Try walking humbly with God for a change.

Focus on the Fruit Rather Than the Gifts

I can’t blame anyone for wanting the gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10. Gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, words of knowledge, words of wisdom, they must have been spectacular to see. What must it have been like not only to see them, but to wield these gifts like Peter or Paul? I can only imagine what it would be like to actually have and use these gifts. The key phrase there is, “I can only imagine.”

Even though at times I thought I might have some of these gifts, I really never did. It looked like I would almost get there, but I never quite made it. Over the years, I have come to doubt whether these gifts really are for the church today. Maybe they were just for Jesus and the first Apostles, because the foundation of the church was still being laid.

But even if you do believe in these gifts for today, remember Jesus warned us that such gifts are not in and of themselves proof that the man or woman is of God. “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Mat 24:24 NRS)

When it comes to false prophets, this is what he said. “You will know them by their fruits” (Mat 7:16 NRS). We need to look for what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit before we accept any signs and omens. What kind of fruit should we look for?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.

(Gal 5:22-23 NRS)

If you give up on your so-called gift of prophecy, what should you do? Cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, first in yourself, then in your ministry. They used to tell me that a church without the gifts of the Spirit had no Holy Spirit and therefore was dead. Now, when I look for evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a church, I don’t even think about the gifts. I look for the fruit of the Spirit. When I see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, then I know the Holy Spirit is present. And where the Spirit of God is, there is life.

Eternal life, that is.

Paul’s Lesson about God’s Timing

Finally, I’d like to say again if you realize you have prophesied falsely and are willing to come clean with it, God bless you. I know it takes a lot of courage. But I want to suggest again that you step down from whatever ministry you are involved in. I’m speaking from experience. I know how disorienting this is, and you will need time to rebuild your faith from the ground up.

If you won’t listen to me, think about Saul of Tarsus. He persecuted the church because he was absolutely certain that he was right, they were wrong, and God was on his side. Then Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said, “No, Saul. You’re the one who’s wrong.” I’m actually paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.

Do you get how disorienting and humbling that must have been for him? To go from thinking he was absolutely right because he was standing for God and the scriptures, to finding out he was absolutely wrong, and God and the scriptures were not on his side? I have a pretty good idea. How long do you think it took him after that to go on his first missionary journey? According to some New Testament timelines I’ve seen, it was about thirteen years. What did he do during that time? We get a hint of it in 1 Corinthians.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures …  

(1Co 15:3-4 NRS)

So this is the Gospel he preached. That Christ died for our sins, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day, all in accordance with the scriptures. But he wasn’t one of Jesus’ disciples before his death, so how did he know the Gospel? Look what he said at the beginning of verse 3. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received.

He had to receive the message of the Gospel from the disciples before he could hand it over to the Corinthians, or to any of the cities he evangelized. After this verse, he goes on to explain some of the details of how he learned from them. If he had clung to his certainty that he was right in the face of overwhelming evidence he was wrong, he never could have learned the good news that would eventually turn him from Saul of Tarsus to Paul the Apostle.

Second, even though the message of the Gospel was simple, the implications for a man like Paul were staggering. I think it took him that long to come to a place where he knew again what he believed, why he believed it, and what that meant for his life. For him to try to take his place as a minister of the church before then would have been a mistake. You believe in God’s timing, right? He followed God’s timing. If he hadn’t, well, who knows? We might never have even heard of Paul the Apostle.

Conclusion

There are a lot of false prophets in the world today, just as Jesus warned us there would be. Some ministers have taken it upon themselves to expose them. I think that is important work. I have watched them on YouTube and learned a lot from them. Some of these false prophets are definitely wolves in sheep’s clothing, preying on people’s earnest desire to draw closer to God, taking their money in exchange for words that feel good but hide them from the truth.

However, I know it’s possible some of them honestly believe they are speaking the Rhema words of God. I’ve been there myself. One of the good things that may come out of this crisis is that it is exposing false prophecies.

You spoke only what you heard, but what you heard was not from God. You believed it was. I understand that. You don’t want to admit you were wrong, not only this time but also in times past, because that would mean the end of your prophetic ministry. I understand how scary that is. Where I might have sounded harsh, it was only because I wanted to break through that fear and stubbornness, so you could see the truth. The truth will set you free, if you accept it. It will hurt, but it will set you free.

Redemption is possible, if you follow the five steps I laid out for you: confess, repent, get back to basics, embrace uncertainty, and focus on the fruit of the Spirit. I know because I’ve been there. Even if you lose the world, you will find your soul. The false gods must be swept away before we can know the true God.

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.

Paperback excerpt: The War on Thanksgiving

This blog post was originally posted December 1, 2016. Then it became part of my book, Dark Nights of the Soul. The holidays are upon us, so I’m posting this excerpt to remind folks not to forget to give thanks during the Christmas season. I want to encourage everyone to shop stores that are closed on Thanksgiving day.


Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music and put up Christmas decorations. Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now, it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store. It was sunny and almost 80 degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

And a few years ago, stores started opening on Thanksgiving day. Really? You can’t wait until Black Friday for your big sale?

Good or Bad for Business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is the question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving Day sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.[1]

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

Why Am I Talking about This on a Blog about Faith and Depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: the fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money.

Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Grace and peace to you.


[1] Josh Hafner, “To Open or Not? Inside Stores’ Thanksgiving Dilemma,” USA Today, October 19, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/19/open-not-retailers-wage-battle-thanksgiving/92380280/

Lot’s Daughters—Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 4

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of incest, child sacrifice, and prostitution. You’ve been warned***

In the previous scene, two angels told Lot he and his family needed to run to the hills for safety, because they were about to destroy all the cities of the Plain. Zoar (previously called Bela), however, was spared because Lot asked if he could go there instead of the hills. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot is left now with only his two daughters. We pick up the story from there.

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters.

(Gen 19:30 NRS)

He settled in the hills… and lived in a cave. That’s what he was trying to avoid earlier (vv. 19-22). I got the feeling earlier Lot did not want to go back to non-urban living. I imagine his daughters were not thrilled about it either. But he was afraid to stay in Zoar. The people there must have been as bad as Sodom. Now they are living in a cave with no one else around.

Not If You Were the Last Man on Earth!

And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

(Gen 19:31-32 NRS)

I hardly know what to say now. Why does the firstborn daughter propose this to the younger? She says, “There is not a man on earth to come in to us….” Some commentators say this shows how important the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was. It was so important to people in the ancient world to procreate and pass on their name to the next generation, more so than today. Everyone was expected to bear children unless they physically couldn’t. They had to be sure their family would survive after their deaths, even if it meant they had to sleep with their father. All of that is true. But was fooling their father into making them pregnant the only option?

They say there is not a man on earth. True, they had witnessed widespread devastation upon the whole plain of the Jordan. Did they really think this was the whole earth? Even if it was, Zoar survived. Were there no men in Zoar? If not, why was Lot afraid to stay there? Of course there were men in Zoar. Lot moved them out of the city, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t sneak off, hang around and pretend to be prostitutes like Tamar (Gen 38:13-26).

Why didn’t they share their concerns with their father? Could it be they did not trust their father after he almost threw them to the wolves (v. 8)? That would be understandable. But they never voice any such concerns when they hatch this plan. Compare that to the detail about Tamar’s motivations to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her, because he would not honor his obligations of Levirate marriage to her (Gen 38). And even with that consideration, their only concern appears to be to preserve offspring, even if it has to be through our father.

There are no other men living in their cave, but that cave is not the whole earth. At this point, I am tempted to joke that they must have been teenagers, because they think anything outside the world they know doesn’t exist. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

What if they were correct? Women sometimes say of a certain man they would not date him if he were “the last man on earth.” What if Lot really was the last man on earth? And they were the last women on earth? If he dies without impregnating them, the whole human race dies with them. And they felt pressured to do it quickly, because our father is now old. In that case, their plan probably would be justified. But they are not the last people on earth, are they?

The Daughters’ March to Folly

In her book, The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman analyzes some of the greatest acts of folly nations have committed in history. She defines folly as having three characteristics:

  1. The leader/nation pursued a course of action clearly against their self-interests.
  2. The actions prompted warnings from wise people, but they were ignored.
  3. A clear and reasonable alternative existed.

Was this clearly against their self-interest? Yes, but if they were stupid enough to believe their father was the last man on earth, they probably never thought that far ahead. Did they ignore warnings against it? No one could warn them, because they did not share their plans with anyone. Even so, I believe they still had a warning. I believe (this is just me) they must have had a still small voice inside them saying, “You don’t have to do this. The world is a big place. Find another man.” Did a clear and reasonable alternative exist? YES! In fact, several alternatives existed.

For one thing, they could have shared their concerns with their father, as I said before. I don’t mean, “Father, there is no man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Will you do it, so we can have children?” They could have eased into it, like, “It looks like we are the last people on earth. Are we?” Maybe they didn’t know the destruction was targeted against specific cities, not the whole earth, but Lot did. So he could have told them, “No, we are not the last people on earth.”

“But where is a man who can produce offspring for us?”

He could have told them, “There are men beyond Zoar and beyond these hills. In fact, Uncle Abraham and Aunt Sarah are out there in Canaan. They will certainly be able to find husbands for you.”

They could have found men in Zoar, as I said before. If Lot forbade them, they could have got him drunk (first part of the plan). Then instead of sleeping with him, they could have gone back to Zoar for a night and snuck back before he was the wiser. Even that would have made more sense than what they planned. They could have asked to go to Haran, where Uncle Nahor still lived, or to find Uncle Abraham. Either of their great-uncles could have found men suitable as fathers and husbands.

But for some reason, they think the only option to “be fruitful and multiply” is to use wine as a “date rape drug” on their father. In spite of clear and reasonable alternatives, they went through with their folly.

So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

(Gen 19:33-36 NRS)

I wonder what they told their father when he saw they were pregnant. Next, we get to the point of this story.

An Origin Story of Two Rival Nations

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

(Gen 19:37-38 NRS)

This begs the question, what kind of children will come from a union like this? Their names even hinted of ignoble origins. Moab means “from the father,” or perhaps even “from her father.” Whose father? Oh yeah. And it echoes the phrase “through our father” in verses 32 and 34 (Moabinu). Ben-ammi means “Son of my people.” ‘Ammi can refer specifically to a father’s relatives or one’s particular tribe, so it is often associated with close family ties. Only one man there is of her people. What happened when Lot heard the names, remembered the nights they got him drunk, and put two and two together? (AWKWARD!)

So this is an origin story of the Moabites and Ammonites. Moab and Ammon were two ancient enemies of Israel. This story portrays them as being founded in folly and sexual licentiousness, and that was in line with stereotypes the Israelites had of their neighbors east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Don’t Know Much about Moabites

The territory of Moab lay east of the Dead Sea. The capital was Dibon. The Israelites encountered them during their forty years wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 22-25). Balak son of Zippor was king at the time. To sum up, Balak and the people were afraid of the Israelites, so Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse them. That backfired. The LORD spoke through him, and the curse turned into a blessing. When Balak was like, “I paid you to curse them, not bless them,” Balaam said, “Must I not take care to say what the LORD puts into my mouth?” (Num 23:12 NRS).

When that didn’t work, they sent their women to seduce them. The Israelite men slept with the women and bowed down to their gods. They yoked themselves to their chief god, Baal of Peor (Num 25:3). Yes, this is after they received the Ten Commandments, and God almost wiped them out when they built a golden calf to be their god. This is what Moses told them after that incident.

You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice.

(Exo 34:15 NRS)

Yet for all this, they broke the first commandment again in a big way. They did all of that with the women of Moab, most likely the cult prostitutes of Baal of Peor. Not only that, when Moses told them to stop, they refused.

God sent a plague that started killing the Israelites. As it spread, the people came to the tent of meeting to repent before the LORD. But one man, Zimri son of Salu, flaunted God and his people by taking his woman into his tent right in front of everyone. Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, took it upon himself to stop the plague. He charged into the tent with his spear and killed them both in the same stroke. (So they were having sex right at that moment.) That is when the plague stopped. Once again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

This became a cautionary tale for every generation of Israelites and Jews. What kind of opinion do you think they had of the Moabites? They were treacherous, idolatrous, and sexually amoral. If anyone asked why they were that way, just look at their origin story. They are the product of incest between father and daughter, so what do you expect?

Don’t Know Much about Ammonites

The territory of Ammon was east of the Jordan River, between the valleys of Arnon and Jabbok, in the modern nation of Jordan. They once occupied the fertile eastern banks of the Jordan River, along with the Moabites, but Sihon king of the Amorites drove them out. Perhaps their greatest infamy was that they introduced their god Milcom, a.k.a. Molech, to the Israelites. His image showed the face of a bull and arms outstretched to receive babies for sacrifice. And like their god, the Ammonites themselves were cruel (1 Sam 11:1-2; Amo 1:13). Again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

"The idol Moloch with seven chambers or chapels"), from Johann Lund's Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer (1711, 1738).
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21 NRS)

So when the young generation asked what kind of people would do this, they could remind them of the origin story. The Ammonites, like the Moabites, were the product of incest between father and daughter. Whether or not the story of Lot and his daughters was true or another urban legend, I don’t know. But it was the kind of story they would tell young people to warn them not to intermarry with the Ammonites and Moabites, because they would entice them to bind them to their gods (Exo 34:16; Deu 7:3-4; Jos 23:12-13). The distrust of the Moabites and Ammonites was so great Moses forbade them from joining “the assembly of the LORD” for ten generations (Deu 23:3-4).

The LORD forbade the Israelites from sacrificing children to Molech or to any gods, including himself. That was supposed to be one of the lessons of when Abraham offered Isaac to the LORD. The angel stopped him, saying,

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

(Gen 22:12 NRS)

They would use this story to teach their young ones, “This is why we don’t sacrifice our children like people of other nations do.” But there is evidence from the Hebrew Bible they did it anyway (Lev 18:21; 20:2-3; Deu 12:31; Jdg 11:30-31; 1 Kg 11:7, 33). In fact, even the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem had a shrine to Molech.

Blood Is (Still) Thicker Than Water

But in spite of all this, Moses told the Israelites not to harass or make war with Moab or Ammon, because God said, “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot” (Deu 2:9; also v. 19 NRS). The Bible does not tell us how and when God made this promise to Moab and Ammon. Why would God do this? God blessed Ishmael and Esau because they were descendants of Abraham. Lot was not Abraham’s descendant, but he was kin by blood.

It’s never stated outright, but God seemed to have a stake in protecting anyone belonging to Abraham’s family. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but God also provided land for the descendants of Moab, Ammon, Esau (Deu 2:5), and Ishmael (Gen 17:20), despite their inhospitable treatment of the Israelites (Num 20:18; Deu 23:4).

This is an example of the grace of God. One definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” We saw how God strong-armed Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and Sarah, even though their behavior was unworthy of a prophet and his wife. Unmerited favor. God granted favor to Ishmael, Moab, Ammon, and Esau, even though they were not worthy.

I said in an earlier post called The Meaning of the Wife-Sister Episodes, “From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.”

For God to tell Israel certain land did not belong to them because God promised it to someone else is in keeping with a God who keeps promises. And it is also in keeping with protecting the bloodline of the Messiah. Even though they were not Abraham’s seed, Moab would one day become part of the bloodline through Ruth (see below). This has led some Jewish commentators to portray Lot’s daughters in a much more positive fashion. On verse 32, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 says:

R. Tanhuma in the name of Samuel: “What is written is not, ‘So that we may keep a child alive from our father,’ but rather, ‘so we may preserve offspring through our father.’ That is to say, the king-messiah, who will come from another source.”

Sometimes in reading these Rabbinic commentaries, I feel a little stupid. I don’t see the difference between “So that we may keep a child alive from our father” and “So we may preserve offspring through our father,” but an article on The Torah website explained it this way:

According to this understanding, the daughters may not believe that they are part of the only family left on earth, but intuit that it is essential that Lot’s line continues, since the king-messiah is destined to come from this line.

Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for their Incestuous Union

Wow! I did not see that coming. Talk about things getting lost in translation. If they somehow intuited Lot’s line had to continue for the Messiah to be born, that would mean they were not just a couple of silly teenagers who showed extremely poor judgment. They were prophets who knew this unseemly act really was necessary. And (if the Rabbis are correct), it changes everything I said about their folly earlier.

Was it against their self-interest? Yes, but they understood the sacrifice they were making so that the Messiah could come into the world. Were there any warnings against it? No. When that still small voice spoke to them and said, “You can find another man,” they would have answered, “The Messiah has to come through our father. Now that Mother is gone, we are his last chance.” Did a reasonable alternative exist? If the issue was not just whether they would have children but whether all the pieces of the Messiah’s lineage would be in place, then no. And there is even evidence in the Hebrew text that Lot might have taken them away from Zoar to isolate them in a cave, so that the daughters would have no other alternative (Genesis Rabbah 51:8-9).

Jan Matsys's portrayal of Lot with his Daughters
“On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter” (Genesis Rabbah 51:9).

Considering how conservative the Rabbis were about sex, I’m surprised they take such a positive view of Lot’s daughters. But one thing is clear. The Rabbis recognize that through Moab, Lot became a branch in the family tree of the Messiah, and they judge Lot’s daughters through that lens. It was because of Ruth that her ancestor, Moab, had to be born, so let’s see how she becomes part of the most important lineage in the Bible.

Forbidden Fruit Is Sometimes a Good Thing

In the time of the judges, an Israelite named Elimelech brought his wife, Naomi, and two sons to Moab to escape a famine (Rut 1:1), which indicates sometimes relations with Moabites and Ammonites were friendly. Ruth, a Moabitess, married one of Elimelech’s sons (despite Moses’ prohibition). When Elimelech and both his sons died, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, alone. She urged Ruth to go back to her family, because there was no way as a widow she could take care of Ruth. But Ruth wondered who would take care of Naomi, so she insisted on going back with her. Her promise to Naomi has become one of the most famous expressions of loyalty in all of literature.

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

(Rut 1:16-17 NRS)

Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Jews call this type of conversion being “born again.” Because first, you are born as part of one people, and the gods of your people become your gods. It was that way in the ancient world, and Jews were no exception. Therefore, most Jews are simply born that way. But what if a Gentile wants to convert to Judaism? That means accepting the Jewish people as his/her own people and the Jewish God as his/her God. Thus, a convert is “born again” as a Jew.

Ruth, in effect, has just been born again to be part of Naomi’s people. It meant leaving her family, her nation, her gods, everything she was familiar with behind, so her mother-in-law would not be alone. That takes guts. When they made it to Bethlehem, they encountered a man named Boaz, who just happened to be related to Ruth’s dead husband. Under the rules of Levirate marriage, if a man dies without a son, his nearest male kin (usually a brother or cousin) must take care of his widow. His choices are

  1. Lie with her and give her a son, so she will have a share in her son’s inheritance.
  2. Marry her, and accept the obligations that come with it.

Ruth asks Boaz for option 2 based on his kinship with Naomi. There is one other man who is closer kin and has the first right of redemption. But Boaz convinces him not to claim it, clearing the way for him to marry Ruth.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.

(Rut 4:13 NRS)

And she bore a son, that was always the most important result of a Levirate marriage. However, since she became his wife, their relationship did not end there. And here’s the surprise ending. She became the great-grandmother of David, thus placing her in the chain of ancestry of the Messiah (Rut 4:17). For her loyalty to Naomi, the women of Bethlehem praised Ruth.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

(Rut 4:14-15 NRS)

More to you than seven sons is truly remarkable praise for any woman, let alone a Moabitess, in such a patriarchal culture.

The next-of-kin, or “kinsman-redeemer” (see Translation Notes) refers to the son Ruth bore through Boaz, who loved Ruth not just for her outer beauty but recognized her inner beauty in how she cared for Naomi, his relative.

May his name be renowned in Israel! Considering his great-grandson would be King David, no one could deny that blessing came true. But it would not have happened if he had not had the courage to defy convention and marry a foreign woman, a Moabite no less.

Undoubtedly, the character of any Moabite or Ammonite would be suspect to the Jews until proven otherwise. They needed a story like this to show them the danger was not in marrying someone of the wrong ethnicity, race, nationality, or skin color. The danger was in marrying a woman who embodied the morality of Moabite or Ammonite culture. Ruth’s actions showed she was a valorous woman (Pro 31:10ff), no matter who her ancestors were.

References

Who were the Moabites?

Who were the Ammonites?

Who was Moloch/Molech?

Lot and his daughters’ motives for their incestuous union

Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah

Wikipedia

If you or your library have a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review, you can read this article: “Ammon, Moab, and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan.”

Translation Notes



… or when she arose

וּבְק֗וּמָֽהּ׃ (Gen 19:33 WTT; ubiqumah) The dot over the qaph is an editorial mark called a Puncta Extraordinaria. It possibly changes the meaning from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.”




Goel: The kinsman-redeemer.

גֹּאֵ֖ל (Rut 4:14 WTT) (go’el) = “Next-of-kin.”

In form, this is a masculine singular participle of the verb ga’al, meaning “to redeem.” Go’el in the NRSV is translated “next-of-kin,” but in other translations it is rendered “redeemer.” The term was often used in a specialized sense of the obligation of the nearest male kin to redeem a family member from slavery, to buy back family property lost through debt, and—in this case—to deliver a male relative’s widow from childlessness by marrying her and giving her a son. When used in the context of the obligations of the nearest male kin, I believe “kinsman-redeemer” is the best way to translate it.

Hol1362  גָּאַל (ga’al) verb qal participle masculine singular absolute homonym 1

make a claim for a person or thing > reclaim him/it, redeem; — 2. duty of the male relative of s.one who has died leaving a childless widow to deliver her from childlessness by marriage Ru 44•6, the man in question being called go’el, deliverer Ru 220.

-Halladay, p. 53.

Moab = “from (the) father”

The meaning of the name Moab is not certain. The name sounds like the Hebrew phrase “from our father” (‌מֵאָבִינוּ‎‏‎, meavinu) which the daughters used twice (vv. Gen 19:32, Gen 19:34). This account is probably included in the narrative in order to portray the Moabites, who later became enemies of God’s people, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:37, sn 102.

Strong’s Data

04124 מוֹאָב Mow’ab {mo-awb}

Meaning:  Moab = “of his father” n pr m 1) a son of Lot by his eldest daughter 2) the nation descended from the son of Lot n pr loc 3) the land inhabited by the descendants of the son of Lot

Origin:  from a prolonged form of the prepositional prefix m- and 01; from (her [the mother’s]) father; (TWOT – 1155 [emphasis mine]).

Usage:  AV – Moab 166, Moabites 15; 181.

Ben-Ammi = “Son of my people”

cf. Lo-Ammi = “Not my people” (Hos 1:9); `am = “people.”

The name Ben-Ammi means “son of my people.” Like the account of Moab’s birth, this story is probably included in the narrative to portray the Ammonites, another perennial enemy of Israel, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:38, sn 103.

Strong’s Data:

01151 בֶּן־עַמִּי Ben-`Ammiy {ben-am-mee’}

Meaning:  Ben-ami = “son of my people” 1) son of Lot, born to his second daughter, progenitor of the Ammonites

`Ammon = “tribal”

A nation believed to have originated from Ben-ammi.

Strong’s Data:

05983 עַמּוֹן `Ammown {am-mone’}

Meaning:  Ammon = “tribal” 1) a people dwelling in Transjordan descended from Lot through Ben-ammi

`am = “people”

6342  עַם

I עַם: sf. עַמִּי; pl. sf. עַמָּיו, עַמֶּיהָ, עַמֶּיךָ: [father’s brother, f.’s relative >] relative: sg. in name, Gn 1938; coll. father’s relatives Je 3712; pl. father’s relatives: Gn 258.

6343  עַם

II עַם: עָֽם, הָעָם; sf. 1. (a whole) people (emphasis on internal ethnic solidarity) Gn 116;…people to whom s.one belongs: benê ±ammim fellow-countrymen Lv 2017;… — 3. oft. not a whole people but a portion: people, inhabitants:…people attached to an individual Gn 328….

(Halladay, pg 275)

Ancient Hospitality–Sodom and Gomorrah, part 2

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of homosexuality and rape. You’ve been warned.***

The last time Abraham saw Lot, he had to rescue him from enemy kings. Lot settled in what are called the cities of the Plain (Sodom, Gomorrah, Adman, Zeboiim, and Bela). The kings of those cities when to war against the kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam, and Goiim. One battle went badly for the kings of the Plain, and Lot was captured along with others. To get a sense of how wealthy Abraham was, he led his own trained men, 318 of them, in a surprise raid that defeated the four kings, rescued Lot and the other prisoners, and brought back all the treasure the four kings had taken (Genesis 14:1-16).

This is the only scene where we see Abraham as a military commander, but he obviously had some experience in this area. He had hundreds of trained men, so these are not just shepherds and cowboys who pick up a sword or spear only when called to war. They were soldiers. And he successfully led a nighttime raid. Any military expert will tell you that is not easy, especially when you don’t have night vision goggles. I really wish we could have seen more of this side of Abraham.

After that, Abraham probably hoped his nephew would join up with him again. Lot chose to stay in Sodom, and that decision would come back to bite him.

Now, God has come down to investigate Sodom and Gomorrah and determine whether God should destroy them wholesale or spare them. Abraham got God to agree that if there are “ten righteous” in the city, God will not destroy them.

Next stop, Sodom

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of Sodom.

(Genesis 19:1a)

The LORD is no longer with the two angels. We were told the LORD went his way (18:33). It appears the LORD was not there to visit Sodom but to share his plans with Abraham. Why was Lot sitting in the gateway of Sodom? The text does not tell us, but could it be because he wanted to protect any strangers who came to stay in the city?

When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them, and bowed down with his face to the ground. He said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you can rise early and go on your way.”

They said, “No; we will spend the night in the square.”

But he urged them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

(Gen 19:1b-3 NRS)

Notice how similar Lot’s invitation to these strangers is to Abraham’s (Gen 18:2-5).

  • Both begged them to turn aside to their house and not pass them by.
  • Both addressed the strangers as “my lord(s).”
  • Both referred to themselves as “your servant.”
  • Both offered to wash their feet.
  • Both offered them sleep or rest.
  • Both prepared a feast for them.

This must have been a standard way of offering hospitality in their culture.

When the angels said, No, we will spend the night in the square, Lot insisted (compare Judges 19:15-20). And like Abraham, he made them a feast. That is still typical of the hospitality the Bedouin.

Bedouin Chief
Don Belt, wrote in National Geographic, he was “short, slim, dark—and had face as fierce as a shrike, with a pointed beak and sharp little beard thrust forward like a dagger.”

He baked unleavened bread (or rather, his wife did) because it was late. There wasn’t time to let the bread rise.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

The purpose of this scene is to show what it looks like when an entire city of people has become so evil God has no choice but to destroy them all. If there are any righteous in the city, even as few as ten, God will spare the city for their sakes. Now, all the people to the last man surrounded the house. In most any place, you would say there are some good people and some bad. Not in Sodom. There is no one righteous, no, not one (Psalm 14:2).

Men of Sodom demand Lot hand over the strangers to them
Inhospitality in Sodom

Bring them out to us, so that we may know them. In case you have never heard the phrase, “to know someone in the Biblical sense,” they were not asking for an introduction.

I haven’t seen you around here before. What is your name? How long are you staying? Overnight? So you’re traveling. Where are you headed? Beer-sheba? Great! If you see my Uncle Ziklag, say hello.

No! They did not want to know who they were. They wanted to know them “in the Biblical sense.” This has led many people to mistakenly think this story is about homosexuality. It’s not. It’s about inhospitality. That will become clear as we work our way through the story.

Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

(Gen 19:6-8 NRS)

Okay, this is another moment where I have to reiterate, I am not defending his actions or motivations. I am trying to clarify a cultural practice that is significantly different from ours. When the men’s intentions toward his guests are clear, Lot offers his two daughters to them in their place. That is hard for us to understand. Why would he do that? Because, as he said, they have come under the shelter of my roof.

Ancient Hospitality

Remember how Abraham and Lot gave almost the exact same invitation to the angels. Think about the culture that taught its people, when you see a traveler passing by your home, immediately offer hospitality to them. Take them in. If they refuse, insist. Give them the best food you have, wash their feet, and give them whatever they need to refresh themselves.

Their sense of right and wrong in many ways was based on how they practiced hospitality. One corollary of that was when you take a stranger into your home, your duty to protect them was even greater than protecting your family (cf. Judges 19:23-24).

If a conflict occurs the host is expected to defend the guest as if he were a member of his family. One Bedouin told National Geographic, “Even if my enemy appears at this tent, I am bound to feast him and protect him with my life.”

Bedouin Appearance, Customs, and Character

Another sacrifice he is making. His daughters are virgins and betrothed. One of the most sacred duties of a father was to keep his daughters virgins until their wedding night. Men in that society wanted to marry virgins. The contract for marriage would have been rendered null and void. If they survive, the daughters will not only lose the men they are promised to. Their chances of finding any husband would be slim to none.

You may not agree that he should have offered his daughters this way. I don’t blame you. In fact, I hope you don’t agree with it. I’m just saying this is what their culture taught. And their hospitality really is beautiful under normal circumstances. In the next verse, I want you to think of how someone from that culture would view the response from the men of Sodom.

And just in case anyone is thinking this, Lot did not offer his daughters to them because it is morally better to rape women than men. Rape is rape, and it is always wrong.

But they replied, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and came near the door to break it down.

(Gen 19:9 NRS)

This would be the epitome of evil to those from a culture like Abraham and Lot’s. And it would have been shocking to the story’s original audience, even more than today.

Now we will deal worse with you than with them. Lot, so far, has shown exemplary hospitality to the angels. The men of Sodom, on the other hand, wanted to exploit them to gratify their own base desires. The law of Moses repeatedly told the Israelites to be kind to the alien who lives among them. Now, they despise Lot for being an alien. He tries to meet his duty to protect his guests, and their response is to deal worse with you than them. To see just how bad their intentions were, see Judges 19:25.

This fellow came here as an alien, and he would play the judge! But in this case, it is not Lot who will judge them.

But the men inside reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And they struck with blindness the men who were at the door of the house, both small and great, so that they were unable to find the door.

(Gen 19:10-11 NRS)

The angels came to see if the cry against Sodom and Gomorrah was as great as they heard. There is no more benefit of the doubt. They had heard with their ears. Now they see with their eyes. They rescue Lot and his daughters by striking the men with blindness. The author of Hebrews said not to neglect hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares (Heb 13:2). The men of Sodom showed inhospitality to angels unawares, and that cannot end well for them.

But what about homosexuality?

This is what most people think of when they hear Sodom and Gomorrah. The term Sodomy comes from this story. Kind of makes it ironic that the Village People, a group with such obvious appeal to gay men, would record a song about it. I’d really love to know the “Behind the Music” story on that.

I have avoided linking this story with homosexuality, and that was deliberate. As a reminder, let’s look at that passage again.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.”

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

You’re probably thinking, “You already said they wanted to know them in the Biblical sense. How is that not homosexuality?” The same way when a man rapes a woman, it’s not about heterosexuality. It’s about rape. Rape is wrong no matter what the gender.

This scene follows the hospitality of Abraham and Lot to the angels. What would be the complete opposite of that? Harm, torture, humiliate, then kill. They did not just want to have sex with them. It wasn’t just, “Ooh, those men are so hot!” They wanted to torture and humiliate them. Why? Because they could.

Travelers are vulnerable. They don’t know anyone there. They don’t know the area, the customs, and may not know the language. Taking advantage of someone’s vulnerability to gratify your own urges, and taking pleasure in their suffering, are the worst impulses humans have. This story depicts an entire people who have given free rein to those impulses.

In the world at that time, the greatest humiliation you could inflict on a man was to use him as a woman. There are ancient depictions of conquering armies (I don’t remember who, but I’ve seen them) bending the enemy soldiers over and taking them from behind. The message is clear. We not only defeated them. We utterly humiliated them. We made them our “bitches.” That was what the men of Sodom wanted to do.

WWJD?

My final proof comes from Jesus himself. When he sent the Twelve out to the towns of Galilee and Judea, he told them what to do if they receive them, and what to do if they don’t. Then he described what would happen on the day of judgment to those that don’t extend hospitality to them.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

(Mat 10:14-15 NRS)

Whenever Jesus talked about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, he referred to inhospitality, not homosexuality. Refusing hospitality to Jesus’ disciples, he said, was an even greater sin than refusing hospitality to angels. They knew what happened in the latter case.

I know that sounds harsh. But what I want you to see here is in their world, the worst sin is inhospitality, not homosexuality. And not just for the Hebrews. The ancient Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon hits the same themes of ordinary people welcoming Zeus and Hermes into their home, unaware that they are entertaining gods. They are rewarded for their hospitality, while their town is punished for its inhospitality.

As modern readers, this should be a reminder that these stories did not come from a modern world. That means in some ways their values will be different, and in some ways they will be the same. Their ethic of hospitality was much more generous than ours. Their ethic of kindness to the alien and stranger was much more serious than ours. You cannot understand the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah without understanding that.

Did Abraham miscalculate?

Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city–bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”

So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up, get out of this place; for the LORD is about to destroy the city.”

But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

(Gen 19:12-14 NRS)

In the last post, I raised the question of whether each member of Lot’s household could have counted towards the “ten righteous.” The last time Abraham saw Lot, he had flocks and herds, and servants and herdsmen to manage them. He might not have had his daughters yet. If they were betrothed to men, but never married, they probably would have been in their young teens. Abraham might have been thinking, “Lot, his wife, his servants and herdsmen, and maybe a son or two. That’s at least ten.”

But Lot is no longer a herder. He’s a city-dweller. He did not need the servants and herdsmen anymore, so he let them go. Now, they are down to Lot, his wife, two daughters, and two sons-in law (not married but promised to his daughters). And even among them, there are serious doubts they could count if they were not part of Lot’s household. The (soon to be) sons-in-law think Lot is jesting. If being righteous includes recognizing when and how God is moving, they just failed.

Here is more irony. What Abraham thought must have been at least ten was at most six, now down to four. Clearly, it is time for Lot to leave, and anyone he has in the city: his wife and two daughters are all who have any chance of escaping the wrath of God. In part 3, we’ll see how they fare. Spoiler: Not well.

Translation Notes

האֶחָ֤ד בָּֽא־לָגוּר֙  (Gen 19:9 WTT)

This one came to sojourn…

Hol1494  גּור verb qal infinitive construct homonym 1  

stay as foreigner and sojourner (« g¢r) Gn 2123•34;

Gur is in the infinitive form, which is usually to + verb. To sojourn or to stay as a foreigner, is how that would work in English. However, we don’t always have to be so literal. An infinitive can also be used as a noun. So other translations say, “This man,” they said, “came here as a resident alien” (Gen 19:9 NAB). “This one came in as an alien,”  (Gen 19:9 NAS). “This fellow came here as a foreigner,” (Gen 19:9 NIV). All of these are legitimate translations.

Abraham the Pimp?

When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram;…

(Gen 12:14-16a)

So far, everything is happening the way Abram predicted. When Pharaoh heard his officials tell him how beautiful Sarai was, she was taken into Pharaoh’s house. As her “brother,” Pharaoh dealt well with Abram. Just how did he deal well with her “brother”?

…and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

(Gen 12:16b)

Hagar was almost certainly among the female slaves (Gen 16). Where did all this booty come from? Pharaoh wanted to get in good with Sarai’s closest male relative, so he would be favorably disposed to him. If he wants to marry Sarai, he has to go through her brother. What’s going on here? Does Abram really think they will kill him if they find out he is her husband? Or is he using her as a bargaining chip?

This does not sound like it can end well.

Foreshadowing the Exodus

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.”

And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Gen 12:17-20 NRS)

The great plagues (not specified) are almost certainly meant to foreshadow the plagues that the LORD afflicts Pharaoh and Egypt with when Moses says, “Let my people go.” They set him on the way … with all he had, including all the gifts he had received from Pharaoh (v. 16). This also foreshadows the Egyptians essentially paying the Israelites to leave, because they were so desperate to be rid of them and their plagues.

Next, we find Abraham was a very rich man.

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.

(Gen 13:1-2 NRS)

Be Rich Like Abraham?

Some preachers love to talk about how rich Abraham was. They link it to this verse from Galatians.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”– in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

(Gal 3:13-14 NRS)

“See, the blessing of Abraham is yours if you are in Christ Jesus,” they say. “Abraham was rich, so God wants you to be rich. God promised the blessing of Abraham for you.” Two problems with that.

  1. The blessing of Abraham has nothing to do with making you rich. Paul says the blessing of Abraham we receive when we are in Christ is the promise of the Spirit through faith. Besides, God also blessed Abraham and his wife by making them parents in their nineties. Do you think God will do the same for you?
  2. They praise Abraham for his wealth, but never talk about how he became wealthy.

Early in chapter 12, we learned that Abraham left his extended family and kindred in Haran to wander in Canaan. He left with possessions, so he earned some on his own. But we also just saw he got more livestock, silver, and gold through deceiving Pharaoh. Deceit is much more a part of the story of the Patriarchs than we want to acknowledge.

They Will Say, ‘This Is His Wife’; Then They Will Kill Me

I’ve been talking as if Pharaoh was an innocent victim, and Abram used his wife’s beauty to con him. But was Abram correct about the threat? Would Pharaoh really have killed him if he had known he was Sarai’s husband? I’m having a hard time finding the answer to that. But what if it is true?

Egyptian art depicting Semites coming to Egypt
Semitic refugees coming from Canaan to Egypt because their land was in famine

Here is one possible scenario. Faced with starvation, Abraham decides to take his household to Egypt, where there is plenty of bread. He intended all along for the move to be temporary (Gen 12:10-11). After all, God sent him to Canaan, not Egypt. As soon as the land of Canaan could sustain his people, he would return.

Sojourn in Egypt

When Abraham gets to the border with his wife, his nephew Lot, his people, and his possessions, the soldiers notice his wife. They say she is his sister (according to plan). The guards report to Pharaoh, and he wants her as part of his harem. He tells them to follow plan A, take her to the palace and deal well with the brother. Plan B is to kill her husband, which they don’t do because (in Pharaoh’s mind) she has no husband..

Since the nearest male relative needs to sign off on the marriage, they bring gifts to Abraham and say, “The Pharaoh requests you and your sister join him for dinner tonight.” Of course, no one says “no” when the king makes a request, especially a foreigner who is only in the country at the king’s pleasure.

The pharaoh, having paid the bride-price for Sarai, takes her away. Abraham wants to protest, but when a king wants a woman for his harem, “no” is not an option. Esther and Bathsheba knew that quite well. What does Sarai do at this point? If she tells them Abram is her husband, he’s a dead man. If Pharaoh wants her in her bed, she can’t refuse. What does she do? Maybe she can play coy with him for a while, keeping him at arm’s length, but not burning that bridge altogether. Let him think she will have him (soon) in order to save her husband while trying her best to stay faithful.

That’s possible. But I know you’re dying to ask this question about Sarai and Pharaoh. Did they or didn’t they? To answer that, we need to dig into the Hebrew a little bit, and then compare this with the other “wife-sister” episode in Abraham’s story.

Did They or Didn’t They?

Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? (Gen 12:19a NRS). We have the Pharaoh saying, “I took her for my wife” (Cf. Gen 4:19; 24:4, 67; 25:1-2). KJV renders it “So I might have taken her to me to wife.” That is the Sunday School version, where we don’t want to tell our children Abram pimped his wife to the Pharaoh in order to save his own hide. That version would have Pharaoh saying in effect, “You told me she was your sister. I might have taken her as my wife. I didn’t, but I might have.” And that would be reason enough for Pharaoh to protest.

In almost all modern translations, including NRS, NAS, ESV, NAB, NIV, there is no “might have.” The verb laqach in Hebrew typically means take. Like “take” in English, it can be used in many different ways. When paired with ‘ishshah (woman), it means to take [her] as a wife. A qal waw-consecutive is usually translated in the simple past tense, hence, I took her. (see Translation Notes below).

So did they or didn’t they? It sure sounds like they did. Translations that say anything to the effect “I might have taken her” appear to be uncomfortable with the obvious meaning of the text. But before we decide, we need to compare a similar incident.

Abimelech, King of Gerar: Another Unwitting John?

When Abraham sojourned in the territory of Gerar, Abimelech the king also took Sarah (Sarai and Abram’s names were changed in Genesis 17) into his household, because she was beautiful. This time, God speaks to the man who took Sarah from her “brother.”

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

(Gen 20:3 ESV)

Laqach, is in the qal perfect, which indicates completed action, just as the qal waw-consecutive imperfect. Now it sounds like he has had sex with her, and God is about to avenge her husband. But here is what we read just a little later. After Abimelech protests that he is innocent, because Abraham told him she was his sister, God says this:

“Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

(Gen 20:6 NRS)

So it says he took her, which would normally indicate they had sex. But it also says God kept Abimelech from sinning against me and did not let you touch her, which means they did not have sex.

If you only look at the text about Abraham and Sarah in the land of Egypt, you would have to conclude Sarah slept with Pharaoh, because he took her as his wife. That’s usually what that means. But since we have this case where a man “took her” [as a wife] but never “touched her” (because God prevented him), it is possible this happened with Pharaoh as well.

Gerar “In the Hands of an Angry God”

Like Pharaoh, God visited Abimelech and his people with a plague (20:17-18; cf. 12:17). They must have been wondering what was wrong. Finally, they knew. God tells him how to remedy the situation.

“Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”

(Gen 20:7 NRS)

This is the only verse that specifically calls Abraham a prophet, but he has already been playing the role of a prophet in many ways. Of course, the king must restore the prophet’s wife to him. Abraham, as a prophet, will then pray and heal Abimelech and his household of their plague of childlessness that started when he took Sarah into his household.

What Have You Done to Us?

Naturally, he is furious with Abraham for putting him in that position.

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.”

 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”

(Gen 20:8-10 NRS)

How have I sinned against you, that you have brought this great guilt on me and my kingdom? That sums it up quite well. Abraham brought the guilt upon them. That is no way to treat your host. Why would Abraham do this? It’s the same story we heard when he went to Egypt.

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”

(Gen 20:11-12 NRS)

This is where we find out Sarah is his half-sister.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister smirks.
Imagine Cersei is Sarah.

We don’t know who her mother is, or under what circumstances she was born. My guess is Abraham and his brothers found out about her when she was a young girl, right about marriageable age. I wonder how they met. I wonder how they reacted when they found out they had the same father.

He says, I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place, but verses 8-10 say otherwise. When they found out God was offended and threatening to kill them, they very much feared God. Also in Kiriath-Arba (later renamed Hebron), he appears to have good relations with the people there (Gen 23:1-20). So as in Egypt, I have to wonder if this is real. Did they really kill husbands of beautiful women to take them as wives? After Abraham brought plagues on his host in Egypt, why is he doing this again? It turns out this was not limited to Egypt and Gerar.

“And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”

(Gen 20:13 NRS)

He claims everywhere he goes, there is no fear of God. They will kill him to get to his wife, “so please, dear, say I am your brother.” I could see this happening in a place here or there, but do they really have to do this at every place to which they come? And just like in Egypt, he makes out like a bandit.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.”

(Gen 20:14-15 NRS)

More sheep, oxen, and male and female slaves. And this is to a man who already has a lot of these (13:2). After restoring his wife, Abimelech allows him to settle anywhere in his territory. That was very important to a man like Abraham with no land of his own. Could he have negotiated this without bringing plagues on his host?

Sarah is Innocent … This Time

To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

(Gen 20:16 NRS)

Abimelech declares in the open she is completely vindicated and restored to her husband, and nothing happened between them. She keeps her honor. But was that true in every place they went? Did she succeed in keeping every king from touching her? Or was Abraham pimping her out for cattle, sheep, slaves, gold, and silver everywhere they went?

And was Sarah really unwilling? The first time, she might have just gone along because everything happened too fast for her to think it through. What if Abraham is right and they will kill her husband? But if they kept doing this everywhere they went, she had to be a knowing accomplice.

Reality Check

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that every king in Canaan and Egypt had a standing policy of killing husbands of beautiful women, so they could take them into their harem. If the woman wasn’t married, he would acquire her the normal way, by negotiating with her closest male relative. Abraham only started doing this in Egypt, which means he passed through the land of Canaan without ever having to do this with the kings there. Now, we’re told he has to do this everywhere, because every king they had already met suddenly started killing husbands, even though this was never an issue before.

map of ancient Egypt and Middle East
Some of the cities in Canaan Abraham passed through on the way to Egypt: Shechem, Jerusalem, Hebron (called Kiriath-Arba), and Beersheba. Gerar was in the Negeb Desert.

And why didn’t word get around? You’d think after this happened to one king, word would have spread along the trade routes. “Sarah is beautiful, but don’t believe her or her husband Abraham when they say they are siblings. They are husband and wife. You’ll be stealing a man’s wife, and his God will bring plagues on you until you release her.”

Is There Really No Fear of God in Every One of These Places?

Here’s what Matthew Henry’s commentary says about it:

Pharaoh’s reproof of Abram was very just: “What is this that thou hast done?” How unbecoming a wise and good man!…

The sending away was kind. Pharaoh was so far from any design to kill Abram, as he feared, that he took particular care of him. We often perplex ourselves with fears which are altogether groundless. Many a time we fear where no fear is.

Pharaoh charged his men not to harm Abram in anything. It is not enough for those in authority that they do not hurt themselves; they must keep their servants and those about them from doing hurt.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete), Genesis 12:10-20, retrieved from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/genesis/12.html

I am inclined to agree with Henry. The evidence that Pharaoh would have killed Abram is flimsy at best. Maybe Abram really believed it. But if so, it seems he “perplexed himself with fears which were altogether groundless.” And when you see someone claim they fear for their lives yet walk away not only unharmed but richer than before, that is always suspicious. What are we to think when Abraham profits over and over again from the same “mistake”?

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

And Sarah was sixty-six when they started doing this. Okay, this is going to be a little politically incorrect, but we need to get real here. At sixty-six years old, Sarah is not only beautiful. She is smoking hot. When a king who already has a harem with just about every beautiful woman in the territory at his beck and call, and he sees another woman and says, “I’ve got to have her,” we’re not talking about inner beauty. We’re not talking about personality. We’re not talking about love. We’re talking lust. At. First. Sight.

Van Halen: Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

Could a sixty-six year old woman be so hot she would inspire instant lust in a man like that? Maybe. I’ve seen some women in their sixties who look good. What about a woman ninety years old and likely pregnant (18:10-15)? I’m sorry. I’m just not seeing it.

I’m not saying she couldn’t be beautiful to her husband or to people who knew her. I know men (including myself) need to focus more on inner beauty than outer beauty, but try telling a king he needs to do that. Try telling a king with a harem he needs to stop collecting “barbie doll” wives and concubines and find a soul mate. See how far you get with him. The kind of beauty the story is saying Sarah has at this age just does not happen, even for a woman who lived to be one hundred twenty-seven.

And we are supposed to believe they got away with this? Repeatedly? He said he asked Sarah to do this every place they went (20:13). As I said before, after this happened in Egypt, how could word of this not have gotten around to all the kingdoms of Canaan and Mesopotamia, given the extensive trade that went on in the area?

Conclusion

There is no way Abraham and Sarah look good in this. Sarah might have done it reluctantly the first time to protect her husband. But by the time they got to Abimelech, they had to be a team on this. The king’s officials ask about her and Abraham’s relationship, and they say they are brother and sister. That’s half-true but omits the most important detail.

The king takes her into the palace so he can woo her. Sarah plays coy but most likely slept with some of the kings they scammed. God shakes down the king with plagues. The king pays them, so Abraham will pray and remove the curse. So every time, Sarah and Abraham leave richer than they came in. We don’t know how Abraham became rich in Haran, but doing this in every place is how they became very very rich.

The episode with Abimelech raises the possibility that Sarah never really slept with Pharaoh. If you wanted to say Pharaoh took her as a wife but did not touch her, this is your best evidence. But in the process, the author made Abraham and Sarah both look far worse than if she slept with Pharaoh.

And this is the man and woman God chose to initiate the God’s covenant with the Jews? The bloodline of the Messiah officially starts with them. That seems to be why God protects them. The Bible does say that God’s call and gifts are irrevocable, apparently even for such scoundrels (Romans 11:29).

At this point, I’m almost inclined to believe this happened, simply on the ground that no one in ancient times wanted their nation’s founder to be so deeply flawed. Even so, it still sounds too far-fetched to be real for reasons I named above.

Usually, when authors make up stories about their founders and heroes, they try to make them look better and more praiseworthy. This author seems to have deliberately made Abraham and Sarah look worse as human beings. Why? I can think of two reasons, which I will explain in the next two blog posts.

Translation Notes

In Genesis 12:19 and 20:3, the key verb is laqach. The simple meaning is “take,” but when paired with ‘ishshah, it means “to take [a woman] as a wife.” Here is an excerpt from the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon.

Hol4162  לָקַח

7. l¹qaµ °iššâ take a wife Gn 251, for onesf. Gn 419, for s.one else Gn 244, l¹qaµ °œt¹h lô le°iššâ Gn 1219;

Pharaoh

וָאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה (WTT) – וְ particle conjunction   לקח verb qal waw consec imperfect 1st person common singular.

Translation would normally be “I took her as my wife.”

Abimelech

In Genesis 20:3, the phrase, the woman whom you have taken, in Hebrew is

עַל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֔חְתָּ (Gen 20:3 WTT).

laqach is qal 2nd masc. sing., “… you took,” or “… you have taken.”

So in both cases, it should be translated in the simple past tense. There is nothing to favor the KJV rendering “I might have taken her.”

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown

Sacrifice of Isaac

The 11th Chapter of Hebrews gives a lot of space to Abraham. Obviously he was an important figure not only in the history of Christian faith. All three major religions of the West (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) trace their origins to Abraham. The author of Hebrews speaks from the perspective of a Jew who converted to Christianity. He not only knows Abraham’s stories from the Torah, he also knows Jewish traditions that were taught in the first century.

So far, we have covered Hebrews 11:8-14 regarding Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and the long, arduous journey to God’s fulfillment of the promise of a son, named Isaac. I have gone back to the stories in Genesis and tried to highlight the details that seem most revealing about them as characters.

Now we get to perhaps the most famous (or infamous) story about Abraham and Isaac. The author of Hebrews cites this as an example of Abraham’s great faith. But the story is disturbing. It raises questions about the character (or perhaps sanity) of Abraham. It even raises questions about the character of God. What kind of God would command a man to sacrifice his only son?

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown
Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac

As I write this, I am not trying to justify Abraham’s or God’s actions, but rather to understand them. This is a character study. A writer must understand their characters, whether they agree with them or not. So in Hebrews chapter 11, we read:

By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.”

 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead– and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

(Heb 11:17-19 NRS)

He Considered…that God is able even to raise someone from the dead

So according to the author of Hebrews, Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. He has already told us God’s resurrection power showed when God gave Abraham and Sarah both the power of procreation when they were both “as good as dead” (in terms of fertility, see vv. 11-12). Abraham experienced resurrection once. Why not again?

I am not sure where the author of Hebrews got this idea. There might have been a Jewish tradition for it. Or it may have been in the text, hiding in plain sight. Let’s look at the original story, in Genesis 22.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

(Gen 22:1-2 NRS)

Offer him as a burnt offering

The first thing you should notice, besides the horror of it, is this command makes no sense whatsoever. After all the trouble God went through to give a son to Abraham and Sarah (see parts 1, 2, and 3), God wants to do away with him? In a burnt offering, you kill the animal (that’s usually what they sacrificed) then set it up on an altar, torch it, and let it burn completely. Most sacrifices were eaten by the worshipper and the priest. The burnt offering, obviously, was an exception. It was considered the highest form of devotion to the deity, since the worshipper did not receive any benefit from it.

God tells Abraham to do this, not with calves or bulls or sheep, but with Isaac. God promised him and Sarah descendants so numerous they could not be counted, like the stars in heaven. Right now, Isaac is the only descendant they have, but when he grows up and has children of his own, and they have children, and they have children, he will indeed have a whole lot of descendants. That was how it was supposed to work, right? Did God change his mind?

Your only son…whom you love. If you’re a Christian, you probably hear the echo of this in John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

Neither Abraham nor Isaac had read the Gospel of John (obviously). What I’m looking for is what does this mean to Abraham and Isaac as the story is happening to them?

Child Sacrifice in Canaan

We should note that this was not unheard of to Abraham. He knew what a burnt offering was. And we know from documents recovered from that period that the Canaanites and other inhabitants of the land practiced child sacrifice to their gods. In some tribes, the first born son especially belonged to the deity, and so was doomed from the start.

Living among people like that, questions would naturally come up. Why didn’t Abraham sacrifice his first born son? Was he less devoted to his god than the Canaanites were to theirs?

People most likely pressured him about it. “Gods don’t like it when mortals don’t offer what belongs to them. Remember Zadok? He didn’t offer his son, and Ba’al struck him with leprosy.”

He must have been afraid that at some point God might ask this of him. “Don’t you fear your God? Your God must not be real if you don’t fear him.” All this is probably going through Abraham’s mind as he sets out on his journey.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away.

(Gen 22:3-4 NRS)

On the third day

Two of his young men, either slaves or hired hands, accompanied Abraham and Isaac. He heads for the place God showed him, but he doesn’t see it until three days of traveling? And even then it’s far away? How far away from his tent was he when God showed him the place? He would have to have traveled alone for several days. I guess he must have traveled away from his camp for some reason, God spoke to him, he came back and set out for the place far away. I wonder what he told Sarah to explain why he and Isaac would be gone so long.

Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”

(Gen 22:5 NRS)

We will come back to you…maybe

Some preachers say this is why the author of Hebrews drew the conclusion that Abraham believed God would raise Isaac from the dead. He said, “We will come back to you.” That could only happen if God raised Isaac from the dead. Isaac’s birth happened because God gave the power of procreation to two people who were “as good as dead.” That was a resurrection of sorts. Why wouldn’t he believe God would do it again? Isaac was the child of the Promise. He couldn’t die without fulfilling his role in God’s promise. Therefore, in Abraham’s mind, God will raise him from the dead.

Personally, I’m not sure it’s that simple. He might have said “we will come back” to avoid the objections the men (and probably Isaac) would have made, if he had said, “I will come back to you.”

Isaac following his father with the wood for the burnt offering on his back
Father, where is the lamb?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.

 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

 Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

(Gen 22:6-8 NRS)

How much wood was Isaac carrying?

Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac. How old was Isaac when this happened? In a lot of artistic renditions, Isaac is portrayed as a baby or a toddler. Very young, too naïve to understand what is happening.

That’s not what we see here. How much do you think the wood for a burnt offering weighs? One source (it was a while ago. I don’t remember the article) said you needed sixty pounds of wood for a burnt offering. Isaac is old and strong enough to carry a sixty-pound load of wood.

Isaac has seen burnt offerings before. He knows they need wood, a fire, and a lamb. He sees something is missing, so he asks, “Where is the lamb?”

His father said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

That satisfies Isaac. For whatever reason, Isaac didn’t ask any more questions after that. I wonder if Abraham had said that to him before. Maybe one day his son looked around and said, “Father, we need water, or the animals will die.”

Abraham said, “God will provide.” Then he dug a well, and lo and behold, there was enough water for everyone and all their flocks.

He bound his son Isaac

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

(Gen 22:9 NRS)

The author makes it sound like this was easy. Isaac, we have already seen, was young, strong, and spry. I’m guessing he would have been maybe fifteen or sixteen. It seems like he could get away from a hundred-and-some year old man if he wanted to. He was old enough to know what it means when the old man starts tying you to an altar built for a burnt offering. Jewish tradition (if I remember correctly) agrees that Isaac was a willing sacrifice. He would have to have been, given what this text tells us.

That, I think, was different from other child sacrifice practiced in Biblical times. The children were young, too young to put up any resistance. We have to assume then that Abraham told his son he would be the burnt offering and why. So far we haven’t seen it in this text, but if the author of Hebrews is correct, he would have also told Isaac God would raise him from the dead. That would explain why Isaac did not run away. If he believed his father earlier when he told him God would provide the lamb, if he believed his birth was a miracle akin to raising the dead, maybe he believed his father this time as well.

Abraham with Isaac at altar of burnt offering for him
Abraham tells Isaac he is the lamb

God himself will provide the lamb. Okay, a ram is just as good.

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

And he said, “Here I am.”

 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

(Gen 22:10-14 NRS)

So how did Isaac survive? The angel of the LORD stopped Abraham. God indeed provided the animal they needed for the burnt offering. Isaac expected a lamb, but a ram showed up instead (verse 8). I don’t think Isaac complained. “Father, you said God would provide a lamb, but that’s a ram.” No, I think he was happy to have anything take his place in that situation. Again, there is that link to John 3:16, …you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me. That negated the need to raise Isaac from the dead, but the author of Hebrews is correct in saying he did receive him back from the dead—figuratively speaking (Heb 11:19).

Angel prevents Abraham from sacrificing Isaac on the altar
Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.

Now I know that you fear God

God didn’t know before? Of course God knew. So why did God say this? I think Abraham was feeling pressure not only from the neighbors but within himself. Had he sacrificed enough for God? It was hard to look his neighbors in the eye when they did not believe he feared his God.

This is my theory. I don’t know how to prove it. But I think by doing this – ordering Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopping him – he took away the reproach Abraham felt from his neighbors and from himself. “Now I know that you fear God,” meant to Abraham, “You have proven to everyone—to God, to your neighbors, and to yourself—that you fear God. You never have to wonder again if you should sacrifice Isaac to the LORD.”

I will indeed bless you…

The angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.

(Gen 22:15-19 NRS)

Somehow, I don’t think they told the young men what happened on the mount of the LORD. But the angel of the LORD repeated the promises that God would bless him, and would make his offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore (see Gen 12:2-3).

“Yeah, God, you already told me that, so I hope you’ve got more than that to explain making me do this.”

And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies

“Okay, that’s good.”

 … and by your offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves.

“I think you said that before, but I can actually see that happening now that I have offspring.”

…Because you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.

“Does it make it less of a sacrifice if I believed you would raise my son from the dead?”

No. You have obeyed my voice. You did not withhold your son, your only son, whom you love, from me.

Seems like a good time to re-read John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

(NRS)

The Christian belief is that the gift of God’s only Son was the fulfillment of the promise that through Abraham’s offspring, all nations of the earth shall gain blessing for themselves. Abraham and Isaac did not know this. Even so, I think somewhere in all the crazy sh—stuff God had him and Sarah do, they both sensed there was something big at stake. Something bigger than Abraham having a son to carry on his name and his inheritance. Something bigger than a son to give Sarah an inheritance and take away her reproach. And that’s why every time God spoke to them, they obeyed. I don’t believe it was obedience just for the sake of obedience. I believe it was obedience that comes from trust that the One who promised was faithful.

For comparison, Jesus and Isaac were both:

  • Their fathers’ only son (Gen 22:2; Joh 3:16)
  • A willing sacrifice (Gen 22:9; Phil 2:6-7)
  • A blessing to all nations (Gen 12:3; 17:19; 22:18; Luk 2:10, 32)
  • Fathers received them from the dead (Heb 11:19; Joh 20:17; Phil 2:9)
  • Birth began with a promise and a covenant (Gen 17:16; Gal 4:23; Luk 1:35-36, 55)
  • Birth looked impossible (Gen 17:17; Luk 1:34)
  • Mothers were told, “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luk 1:37; Gen 18:13)
  • Became symbols of resurrection.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Okay, if you’re still uneasy about this whole episode, that’s fine. If you’re thinking God better not tell you to sacrifice your child, I understand. That’s good. In fact, that points to the reason Abraham and Isaac needed this experience, not only for themselves but for all their descendants.

The people of that region sacrificed their children. Every generation of Abraham’s seed would have to answer the question, “Why don’t you sacrifice your children?” Because Abraham and Isaac already took that step, and God stopped them and said, “Now I know you fear the LORD,” they would never again have to sacrifice their children to prove their devotion to the LORD.

This is not a “go and do likewise” passage. For us, it is more of a cautionary tale against sacrificing the people we love to please God. It is against allowing the pressure of normalized wrongdoing to get to us and force us to take on their evil practices. And seeing the parallels between Isaac and Jesus, if you are a Christian, it should be obvious how this event pointed to the gift and the sacrifice of God’s only-begotten son for our sake.

Maybe this is why it took so long for God to find the right people to act this out. God needed a husband and wife who were as good as dead to give birth to a son, and God needed a father and son who would both obey the command to sacrifice the son and believe the son would rise from the dead. Try finding people strong enough–spiritually, mentally, and physically–for that through a want ad. I’d say they were all made of stronger stuff than me.

God himself will provide the lamb

After doing this study, I am blown away that even at this time, some 1,900 or 2,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God was already working out God’s plan for our redemption. Think about it. Almost as much time happened from the birth of Isaac to the birth of Jesus as from the birth of Jesus to today. God determined this was the beginning of the bloodline that would lead to the birth of the Messiah.

God orchestrated that beginning in a way that foreshadowed how the Messiah would redeem us, so we could recognize it when it happened. The Messiah would come from an impossible birth, would sacrifice his own life in our place, and he would rise from the dead.

Conclusion, sort of

We have come to the end of what Hebrews 11 says about Abraham, and there are still more stories to explore. I have already come to the conclusion that people just don’t know how fascinating these characters are. Abraham, the patriarch and prophet who becomes a nomad, a stranger and an alien with no land to call his own, so he can follow his God to the ends of the known world. Sarah, his wife (and half-sister, by the way), the beautiful princess who has everything she wants—except a son of her own. Hagar, the freedom fighter who sacrifices her liberty so her son can live. Ishmael, the answer to Abraham and Sarah’s prayers, but who is destined to make his way in the world without them. Isaac, born of two parents as good as dead, the youth who trusts his father and his God enough to allow himself to be sacrificed, and in doing so becomes the forerunner of the Messiah. And all of them living under one tent (figuratively speaking).

Where do I go from here? At some point I will talk about how Abraham’s saga illustrates some key storytelling points in the Biblical world. But in the next few character studies, I will get into the beginning of Abraham’s story, what his genealogy says about him, how and when he first heard God’s calling, and how he responded.

Now since we have talked so much about Abraham and how his line of descendants started, I’d like to leave you with this.

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

(Gal 3:29 NRS)

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.”