Abraham’s Story Ends

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

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

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

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

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

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

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

An Old Man Full of Years

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

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

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

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

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

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

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

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

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

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

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

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

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

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

The Handmaid and Her Son

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

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

From Havilah to Shur

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

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

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

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

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

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

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

Alongside of, or against His People?

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

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

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

The End

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

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

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

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


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

“Props” for Ishmael

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Translation Notes

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

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

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

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

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

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

Opposite Egypt

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

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

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

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

(pg 294)

BDB says,

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

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

In the Direction of Assyria

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

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

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

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

BDB says,

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

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

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

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

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

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

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

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

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

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

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur

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

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

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

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

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

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

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

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

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

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

There Was Rebekah

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

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

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

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

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

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

A Place to Spend the Night

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

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

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

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

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

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

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

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

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

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

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

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

He said, “Speak on.”

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

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

Telephoning

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

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

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

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

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

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

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

The Thing Comes from the LORD

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

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

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

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

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

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

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

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

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

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

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

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

Who Are All These Camels For?

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

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

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

Isaac Meets His Bride

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

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

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

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

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

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

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

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

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

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

For Writers: Self-Editing

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

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

And then we have this.

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

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

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

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

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

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

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

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

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

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

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

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

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

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

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

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

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

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

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

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

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

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

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

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

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

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

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

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

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

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

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

Find the Anachronism

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

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

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

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

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

A Hero’s Welcome

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

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

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

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

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

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

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

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

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

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

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

An Agreement Is Reached

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

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

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

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

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

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

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Wife for Isaac

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

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

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

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

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

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

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

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

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

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

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Further Study

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

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

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

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

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

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

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

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


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

8737  שָׁמַע  

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

(Halladay, p. 377)

A King Wants to “Friend” Abraham

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

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

And Abraham said, “I swear it.”

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

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

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

Yes, Abimelech, and by the Way…

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

(Gen 21:25-26 NRS)

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

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

Certain Details Left out

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

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

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

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

(Gen 21:27-31 NRS)

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

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

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

They Invoked the Seven

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

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

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

From Oral to Written

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

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

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

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

Anachronisms

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

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

(Gen 21:32-34 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

The Land of the Philistines

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

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

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

Abraham Planted a Tree…

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

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

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

…and Called on the Name of the LORD

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

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

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

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

NET, tn 64.

The Everlasting God

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

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

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

Commentary on Genesis 21:33.

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

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

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

“How we gonna breathe without them trees?”

Translation Notes

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

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

Hol3332  יכח  

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

Halladay

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


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

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

References

Bible Map: Beersheba

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

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

Tel Beer Sheva National Park (brochure).

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

Wikipedia

Beersheba

Goliath

Philistines

Tamarix

Ishmael, a Different Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Brings Laughter for Sarah

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

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

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

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

How Dare He Play with My Son!

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

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

(Gen 21:8-11 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 16:25 NRS)

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

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

The Matter Was Very Distressing to Abraham

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

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

(Gen 21:12-13 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

The Child of the Promise

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

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

(Gen 16:12 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 21:14)

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

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

Sarah’s Bad Side

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

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

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

(Gen 21:15-16 NRS)

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

“God Hears”

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

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

(Gen 21:17-18 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 21:19 NRS)

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

God Was With the Boy

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

(Gen 21:20-21 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Hmm. Something amiss here.

How Old Was Ishmael When This Happened?

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

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

(Gen 21:14-15 NRS)

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

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

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

and he grew up;

(Gen 21:20 NRS)

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

Another Doublet?

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

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

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

What Does It Mean?

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

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

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

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

An Allegory

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

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

(Gal 4:31 NRS)

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

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

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

(Eph 2:8-9 NRS)

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

Translation Notes

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

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

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

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


Yeled = “the child” (Gen 21:14, 15)

Hol3340  יֶלֶד

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


Na`ar = “the boy.” (Gen 21:20)

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


Gadal = “he grew up”

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

Hol1442  גָּדַל (gadal)

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

For I Have Chosen Him – Sodom and Gomorrah part 1

In a previous post, I talked about the time the LORD visited Abraham and Sarah with two other unidentified men (Genesis 18:1-15). Later, the two are identified as angels (19:1). During that visit, the LORD reiterated the promise to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a son by this time next year. Sarah laughed because she was ninety years old. The LORD reprimanded her for laughing, which doesn’t seem fair because any one of us would have laughed too. But this let her know God was serious. God made a promise, and God will keep it.

Now I want to pick up from that point. The men are about to leave, and as Abraham walks with them, he learns the purpose of this visit to earth.

Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?

(Genesis 18:16-18 NRS)

Who is the LORD talking to? I would assume the two angels accompanying Him. It’s interesting that God raises this question with them while Abraham is listening. God reiterates the promise that he will become a mighty nation, and all nations of the earth shall be blessed in him. This is directly connected to the promise of a son through Sarah (18:10). It is strange, I know, that God waited until he was ninety-nine, and she was ninety, to do this. I’ve discussed the reasons why I think God fulfilled the promise this way.

God asks (rhetorically) if God should hide God’s plans from Abraham, then answers.

“No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

 (Gen 18:19 NRS)

Abraham is God’s covenant partner, the one God chose to build God’s own nation out of, and therefore, God chooses to share God’s plans with him. This is the most important Bible verse you have never heard of. God promised here and other times to make Abraham a great nation, and through that nation, all nations of the earth would be blessed. But God never specified what that blessing would be until now. Here in this verse, we learn why God approached Abraham and made covenant with him. Why it was so important that he have a son with Sarah. Why he called Abraham to become the founder of a great and mighty nation.

Do you see the answer? That he (Abraham) may charge his children and his household after to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

God wanted Abraham to teach righteousness and justice to his children and his household. Righteousness and justice are two of the most important words in the Old Testament, and they are often paired together. They were the standard by which all nations were judged, both by the people and God. Does the nation act with justice, in its laws and how it enforces them? Do its people know and do what is right (called righteousness)? That is how you know it is a nation that keeps the way of the LORD.

But much of the world does not know or follow the way of the LORD. Injustice, corruption, exploitation, and oppression are the norm for them (as we will see in Sodom). How can God teach them? By building up and blessing Abraham, a man who has just treated him with righteousness and justice. A man who was kind to strangers and aliens, probably because he was a stranger and alien himself. A man who showed the LORD and his two companions exemplary hospitality. God wants this man, who knows the way of the LORD, to teach it to his children and his household, so they can be an example to the world around them. The nations of the earth will see, through Abraham and his seed, what it means to do righteousness and justice.

When God made covenant with Abraham, the goal all along was to establish righteousness and justice in the earth. Abraham and his seed were the vessel God chose to teach and do it. You may argue with me that Abraham wasn’t always righteous and just, and neither were his descendants. But you cannot deny that was God’s goal in calling Abraham and his descendants to be God’s people. How do I know? It says so right in that verse: That he may charge his children and his household after to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice.

God did not only say that to Abraham. God said it several times in the Torah and the Prophets. That was the purpose of God in delivering the seed of Abraham from bondage in Egypt. That was the purpose of all those 613 commandments in the law of Moses. That was the purpose in establishing Israel as a nation. When Israel did not live up to that purpose, God punished them, first by splitting the nation into a northern kingdom (called Israel or Ephraim) and a southern kingdom (called Judah). When they still did not follow the way of justice and righteousness, God handed over both of the kingdoms to foreign powers. God looked for justice from them but saw bloodshed. God sought righteousness but heard a cry of distress (Isaiah 5:7).

I said before I am interested in learning these characters’ motivations, including God’s. Now you know the primary motivation driving God in calling Abraham and visiting him and having him do all these crazy things: to establish righteousness and justice through him, his children, and his household, so they can bring that blessing to all nations.

Changing the Mood: You’re up, King James

Normally, I don’t use the King James Version as my base text. But I really like how this next scene reads in the KJV.

And the LORD said, “Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous; I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me; and if not, I will know.”

(Gen 18:20-21 KJV)

Okay, right now, you’re probably thinking, “What do you mean, ‘I will go down now and see…and if not, I will know’? You’re God. Don’t you know everything?”

The traditional understanding of God is that God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient. I believe that, but the fact is when you read the Bible, there are some stories where God appears not to be omniscient. I don’t recall who said this, but I agree with someone who said, in effect, we should read them as imaginary stories to make a theological point. As such, we should not expect it to follow perfect doctrine. Instead, we should ask, what is the theological point?

Map showing Sodom and Gomorrah location
Sodom and Gomorrah were on the southeast coast of the Dead Sea

Remember God said righteousness and justice were the reason God chose to make covenant with Abraham. Then God said, the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, because their sin is very grievous. Therefore, the sin should be read as injustice and unrighteousness. God chose to share this information with Abraham. How will Abraham respond?

And the men turned their faces from thence, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. And Abraham drew near, and said, “Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: wilt thou also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

(Gen 18:22-25 KJV)

God did not say God would completely destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but somehow Abraham inferred it. Abraham uses God’s concern for justice and righteousness in interceding for the city. God never told Abraham God is the Judge of all the earth, but again, somehow Abraham has inferred that as well. As such, [far be it] from thee…to slay the righteous with the wicked. Because shall not the Judge of all the earth do [what is] right(eous)?

And the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”

(Gen 18:26)

Imagine you are in a situation where you have to tell your boss something, but you know if you offend him/her, you may be fired. Now imagine you have to tell this to a king who, if he doesn’t like what you are saying, could say, “Off with your head.” That is how Abraham speaks to God, and it is effective.

Notice how Abraham is so tactful with God. Calling him the Judge of all the earth. Saying that be far from thee to do what is unrighteous. Some would call this flattery. I look at it as appealing to the better angels of God’s nature (which I know is a theologically incorrect statement, but you get what I mean). And he adds that he himself is but dust and ashes. Flattery (or appealing to better angels) mixed with self-loathing usually made a king more favorable to you.

And Abraham answered and said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, which am but dust and ashes: Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: wilt thou destroy all the city for lack of five?”

And he said, “If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it.”

(Gen 18:27-28)

So even though the city has thousands of people, Abraham is still not sure the LORD will find that many. He begins the process of bringing that number down, still being tactful.

And he spake unto him yet again, and said, “Peradventure there shall be forty found there.”

And he said, “I will not do it for forty’s sake.”

And he said unto him, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak: peradventure there shall thirty be found there.”

And he said, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.”

(Gen 18:29-30)

Abraham seems to sense he is close to pushing his argument too far, so he says, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak. It’s like he’s asking permission because he’s afraid God will get angry if he keeps this up, but he keeps it up anyway. I love how Abraham is both deferential and persistent. This is why I like reading this scene in the King James. The formal, old-fashioned language seems to fit that mood.

And he said, “Behold now, I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there.”

And he said, “I will not destroy it for twenty’s sake.”

And he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there.”

And he said, “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake.”

And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned unto his place.

(Gen 18:31-33)

So Abraham has successfully negotiated generous terms for Sodom and Gomorrah with the LORD, the Judge of all the earth. The LORD only has to find ten righteous in the city, and despite the outcry of injustice and unrighteousness, the LORD will spare the whole city for the sake of ten righteous. Cities were smaller then than today. But still, Sodom probably had thousands of inhabitants, maybe up to ten or twenty thousand. Surely, there are at least ten righteous in even the most wicked city, right? Especially knowing Lot is there. Besides my nephew, the LORD only has to find nine more righteous. How hard could that be?

That is probably what Abraham thought. However, this is written to people who already know how this story ends. They know Abraham had to negotiate that number down even further than that. Despite Abraham’s intervention, Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed.

Why Did He Stop at Ten?

It’s clear Abraham had experience in negotiating with earthly monarchs. His flattery mixed with self-loathing is perfect for that. And the smartest thing he did was before he started negotiating specific terms, he appealed not only to God’s greatness and majesty as the Judge of all the earth. He also appealed to what God himself said was his concern regarding Sodom and Gomorrah: righteousness and justice. Is it righteous or just to slay the righteous with the wicked? Of course not. Surely, you as the Judge of all the earth will do what is just, won’t you? I see a lot of similarities with how Abigail negotiated with David to stop him from killing every male of her household.

In addition, before Abraham knew of God’s plans regarding Sodom and Gomorrah, God spoke of Abraham as a partner with whom he would not take such action without first telling him. That may have been because Abraham’s nephew Lot was in Sodom, and God did not want to take action that would affect him without warning.

Abraham and Lot separate
“Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” (Genesis 13:8-9 NRS)

God just acknowledged a special relationship with Abraham, so Abraham knew he could push his argument a little farther than was comfortable.

It looks like he stopped at ten because he was afraid of making the LORD angry. However, there is no indication in the text that the LORD was getting angry. Each time he asks, God says, “I will not destroy it for thirty’s sake…for twenty’s sake…for ten’s sake.” It doesn’t say God spoke angrily or looked angry. It just says God said it. Abraham’s fear might have come from his dealings with earthly monarchs, whose anger was deadly and could flare in a second. If so, this is a great use of irony from the author. The courtly experience that made Abraham a successful negotiator with God Almighty also made him stop short of where he needed to end his negotiation.

It’s like looking for righteousness and justice in Sodom and Gomorrah.

What Is the Theological Point?

I said earlier, this should be read as an imaginative story with a theological point. So what is the point? Here is what I see.

  • God wants people to treat each other with righteousness and justice. When they do not, God gets angry. Because the cry of injustice is great against Sodom and Gomorrah, God has come to investigate before passing judgment. When God punishes a people or a city, it is not on a whim. It is because their injustice and unrighteousness have become so great to make it irredeemable.
  • God’s mercy is great, but so is God’s justice. God seems to want Abraham to give a reason why Sodom and Gomorrah should be spared. Abraham gives a good reason. It is not righteous and just to destroy the righteous with the wicked. As long as there are a certain number of righteous people in the city, you should not destroy it. And God agrees to those terms. They just needed ten righteous people, or maybe righteous men (see Translation Notes), and the city would be spared. In the minds of the audience, if there are not ten righteous in the whole city, they probably deserve to be destroyed.
  • Part of the role of a prophet is to intercede for those marked for destruction. God calls Abraham a prophet (20:7). When we read the prophets, we see them at times petitioning God to change God’s plans for destruction. Moses did the same. And sometimes, God listened and spared the people.
  • A few righteous people might be enough to save even a wicked city. This is a long standing tradition in Judaism. God does not want to destroy the righteous with the wicked. Therefore, even a relatively small number of righteous people can stop the LORD from destroying an unjust people. Because of them, God’s patience is long. But earlier, God told Abraham when the iniquity of a people is complete, they are marked for destruction (Gen 15:16). If that is the case in Sodom and Gomorrah (and the audience knows it is), they are doomed.

For Writers: Irony

As I pointed out, the author makes excellent use of irony in this scene. How do you keep the reader or audience engaged when they already know the ending? Irony is one method that works well in that situation. In literature, there is verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony.

Verbal irony is when the intended meaning of a word or phrase is the opposite of the stated meaning. For example, in Robin Hood, what do they call the biggest Merry Man? Little John. And I think Pilate was being ironic when he posted the sign on the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” There is actually a double irony here. While he thinks he is being ironic, the audience sees it as the truth.

Situational irony is when the characters and audience know the irony of the situation. One good example is “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, arguably the king of irony. In this story, a young wife and husband have no money to buy Christmas gifts for each other. The wife sells her hair, so she can buy a gold chain for her husband’s watch. The husband sells the watch, so he can buy combs for his wife’s hair. When the gifts are revealed, both they and we see the irony. Or in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Coleridge says,

“Water, water, everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

The characters are in danger of dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean. Again, the characters and the reader both see the irony.

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows the irony, but the characters do not. For example, Juliet says this to her nurse after seeing Romeo, “Go ask his name: if he be married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed” (Act 1, Scene 5). The audience knows she will indeed die on her wedding bed, but Juliet, of course, does not.

I would call this scene with Abraham and God dramatic irony. Abraham does not know the irony (yet), but the audience does, because they know Sodom and Gomorrah will be destroyed. This bit of irony makes you wonder, What if Abraham had kept negotiating? Could the city have been saved?

There is also irony in that God wanted people to do righteousness and justice. In the next scene, however, the audience knows God will encounter the epitome of injustice and unrighteousness in Sodom. Abraham showed proper hospitality to God, but in Sodom they practice gross inhospitality. So the irony continues into the next scene.

When they already know the ending

One thing writing coaches have taught me is you don’t want to give away the ending. That takes away the tension for the reader. Will Sodom and Gomorrah survive God’s judgment? No. What else do you have?

But for some kinds of writing, you can’t avoid the fact that the reader knows the ending. The audience already knows the ending in this case, but the author manages to keep them engaged. I think that is because of the levels of irony he has built in. When we see Abraham come so close to saving Sodom and Gomorrah, it makes their ending even more tragic. Not necessarily a shame, but tragic. So here are a few links to help you learn more about it.

Definition of Irony

Definitions and Examples of Irony in Literature

Three Types of Irony.

What is the effect of situational irony?

What impact does the irony have upon the reader?

Translation Notes

…to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice;

(Gen 18:19 NRS)

Two of the most important words in the Hebrew Bible are tzedakah (righteousness) and mishpat (justice). They are often paired together.

Righteousness generally means doing what is right, or conducting yourself rightly with other people and with God. I think that is likely what it means here. Abraham did what is right by welcoming the strangers and showing hospitality. However, there is another meaning Holladay’s Lexicon gives for this verse particularly: Justice (of a human judge) Gn 18.19.

Mishpat is normally the word for justice, but sometimes tzedakah can mean justice as well. In fact, when paired together, they are synonymous. But that note “of a human judge” might explain why God is discussing God’s plans with Abraham. God wants to see how Abraham responds, because if he and his household are to keep the way of the LORD, they must know how to do righteousness and justice. God allows Abraham to play the role of an advocate for a moment to see how he will apply righteousness and justice to this situation.

Mishpat can mean justice in a general sense. It also often has the connotation of legal proceedings and lawsuits being brought to court, as in the Justice system. This would further indicate Abraham’s role as an advocate in this case. He did well as a righteous advocate. Unfortunately, he just did not know how bad things had gotten in Sodom.

Did Abraham Mean Ten Righteous Men or Ten Righteous People?

And Abraham drew near, and said, Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?

(Gen 18:23 KJV)

Abraham uses tsaddiq to refer to “the righteous.” The word is masculine in form. That in itself does not mean he was referring to men only. A masculine form sometimes includes male and female. Those in a man’s household—wife, children, servants, and slaves—were extensions of him (18:19), so their righteousness was tied to his. All of Abraham’s household was bound by the covenant he made with God (17:10-16). What does that mean in relation to this? Did each person of a household  (men and women, free and slave) count indivitually, or did it have to be ten righteous free men? Since this was a patriarchal society, I tend to think it was free men only.

On the other hand, if each member of Lot’s household could potentially count towards the “ten righteous,” Abraham might have thought Lot’s household was enough. Lot’s household and possessions became so great that he and Lot had to separate (Gen 13:5-9). Lot chose the fertile land of the plains of Jordan and ended up in the city of Sodom (Gen 13:10-12). Lot had herdsmen for his flocks. If they could count toward the ten, all the more likely the city would be spared. Could his wife and children count? He had two daughters. Sons would have been better, but perhaps they could still count toward the ten.

Maybe Abraham stopped at ten because he was thinking each member of Lot’s household would count. He did not know, however, even if they counted, Sodom was doomed. And this would be one more layer of irony.

According to the Cry

I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto me

(Gen 18:21 KJV)

7278  צְעָקָה

. cry of wailing, call for help Gn 1821; loud & bitter cry.

Holladay, p. 309.

The cry, in Hebrew tze`akah. I amplify this as “a cry of distress,” because that is usually the meaning of tze`akah.

Notice there is only one letter difference between this and tzedakah (righteousness). Isaiah (5:7) used this in his pun where God looked for righteousness (tzedakah) but heard a cry (tze`akah). A lack of righteousness allowed oppression, affliction, and injustice to flourish, which led to a great cry from the people. Notice the similarity in language when God calls Moses.

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians

(Exo 3:7-8a KJV)

I have seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters…I am come down to deliver them…. The word for cry here is tze`akah as well.

In Egypt, God saw the afflicition the Israelites suffered. God heard their cry. God came down to deliver them. It is the same pattern when God spoke to Abraham, to Moses, and to Isaiah. Remember this when we explore the story of Sodom and Gomorrah next week.

Urban Legend film promotional poster: What you don't believe can kill you.

The Meaning of the “Wife-Sister” Stories

In my last post, I talked about the “wife-sister” episodes in Abraham’s saga. I pointed out they are problematic in these ways:

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once or twice, but every place they went (Gen 20:13)?

I’m going to answer those questions in this post. But first, there is one more nagging question. Why didn’t God reprimand Abraham?

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.

But we don’t see God reprimanding Abraham in any of God’s appearances, even when it looks like he needs it. In his assessment, Dr. Ralph F. Wilson says,

Perhaps, these two stories aren’t intended to teach us about either ethics or faith. Perhaps these stories are intended to teach us about the intervention of God to keep his promises, regardless of the worthiness of his servants [bold mine]. God is sovereign and will keep his promises — in spite of us, if need be. God has made a covenant with Abraham and will allow nothing to prevent its fulfillment.

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

These “sister-wife” episodes don’t present Abraham and Sarah as heroes in any fashion. But they do show God keeping God’s promises to Abraham.

  1. God promised, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse”  (Gen 12:3 NRS). When Abimelech took Abraham’s wife, God warned him he’d better return her to him, or he was a dead man. Promise kept.
  2. God had just promised Abraham and Sarah, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen 18:10 ESV). Sarah has been infertile her whole life, but God has just spoken her fertility into existence. What if she’s not pregnant yet? If Abimelech makes her pregnant, the promise to Abraham is broken. Therefore, as God said, “it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6 NRS). God is keeping that promise to Abraham.
  3. God told Abraham, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year” (Gen 17:21 NRS). In some parts of the world, people believed that if two men lay with the same woman, the child could be begotten of both fathers. I don’t know if this was the case in Abraham’s culture, but even if it wasn’t, God wanted it to be clear. The child born of Sarah (Isaac) came from Abraham. If she had just become pregnant, that question would always be uncertain. If that is the case, God is again protecting the bloodline of the Messiah.

You might have an issue with how God acted here, protecting Abraham and Sarah without reprimanding them for their deceit. It’s easier to understand with Pharaoh than here. When they went to Egypt, God speaking to Abraham was still new. For us looking back, it’s easy to say he should have trusted God more. But trust is something that is built over time.

By the time we get to the Abimelech episode, Abraham has had twenty-five years walking before God to learn this lesson. God promised to curse those who curse you, so why do you still not trust God? Do you still think you have to pass your wife off as your sister?

I admit I have the same issue. But as I said in earlier posts, I’ll say it again. I’m not interested in justifying the motivations of these characters, whether it be Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Abimelech, or even God. I’m interested in understanding their motivations. That’s the writer in me. We need to understand our characters, even if we disagree with them.

That is another way I agree with Dr. Wilson. This is not a lesson in ethics or faith. It certainly is not a “Go and do likewise” passage. It is about God keeping God’s promises. That is something God will always do, “regardless of the worthiness of his servants” (Wilson). So here is a little more from Dr. Wilson.

The Apostle Paul summed it up well in this saying: “If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

We disciples are to learn that God…will keep [God’s] promises to us and to the human race. [God] is more powerful than any force that comes against us. We can trust [God].

Sarah’s Abduction (Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18)

But Did This Really Happen?

In my last post I also said I have a hard time believing this is real because

  1. Sarah is ninety at this point. Is she really going to attract the attention of a king who already has a harem of young, beautiful wives and concubines?
  2. Abraham said he did it every place he went, because he thought there was no fear of God in any of the cities of Canaan. Yet there are clear examples in his own story where that is just not the case.
  3. I haven’t found any evidence outside the Bible where the kings of Egypt and Canaan made a habit of killing the husbands of beautiful women, so they could claim them for their harem. After twenty-five years of wandering in Canaan, Abraham should have noticed this.
  4. How could he have gotten away with telling this fib every place he went, when word certainly would have spread along the trade routes? That kind of ruse could not have fooled the kings and their officials for so long.

So why did the author do this? Why tell the same story twice when even once made their founding ancestors look so bad? And why tell it in a way that strained credibility to the breaking point?

New Word: Doublet

Oxford Online Biblical Studies defines a doublet as

A second version of a saying or of a narrative. [For example] Mark 8: 1–9 is regarded as a doublet of the previous account (6: 35–44) of the feeding of the multitude. But when small units are repeated it is not always easy to know whether these are doublets or deliberate repetitions for stylistic effect.

Doublet

It is generally accepted among scholars that these stories circulated orally for hundreds of years before they were written down and collected into what we call the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses. We have two different stories of Abraham and Sarah telling kings she is his sister because they fear the king will kill him if they know he is her husband. There is even a third such story involving Isaac and Rebekah, also with Abimelech of Gerar (Gen 26). How did he get fooled the same way twice? Could we be looking at an ancient “urban legend”?

Here’s my take on it. It started as one story of Abraham and Sarah, either in Gerar or Egypt. That story got passed down orally. In different places, some of the details changed over time. Three versions of the same story were preserved in the Torah.

  1. Abram and Sarai with Pharaoh of Egypt.
  2. Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech of Gerar.
  3. Isaac and Rebekah with Abimelech of Gerar.

Dr. Wilson believes this is not a doublet (or a triplet in this case). There are so many differences in the details that they could not be merely three versions of the same story, he claims. Yes they could, if the same story were told in three different locations over hundreds of years. The differences are significant. But they are exactly the kind of differences that happen when the same tradition is preserved orally in different communities.

Urban Legends

Urban Legend movie poster
Urban Legend: What you don’t believe can kill you.

This story also has a lot of marks of what we call today “urban legends.” Snopes.com gives this definition.

Urban legends are best described as cautionary or moralistic tales passed along by those who believe (or claim) the incidents befell either folks they know … or acquaintances of friends or family members.

-David Mikkelson, Urban Legend Definition

Wikipedia says:

An urban legend, urban myth, urban tale, or contemporary legend is a genre of folklore comprising stories circulated as true, especially as having happened to a friend or family member, often with horrifying or humorous elements. These legends can be entertainment, but often concern mysterious peril or troubling events, such as disappearances and strange objects. They may also be moralistic confirmation of prejudices or ways to make sense of societal anxieties.

Whereas legends usually take place in the distant past, urban legends are contemporary to the speaker and the audience. The teller claims it really happened, but no further evidence exists. Over time, the details change as the setting changes. For example, in one place, Egypt changes to Gerar, or vice-versa. Abram and Sarai change to Abraham and Sarah, because the Gerar incident is reported after God changed their names. Maybe in another locale, instead of Abraham and Sarah, they say it happened to Isaac and Rebekah. One teller says Sarah slept with Pharaoh. Another is not comfortable with that, so they say God intervened to stop Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah.

Most cultures have urban legends in some form. They are usually cautionary tales against behavior the listener might be tempted to do. The Snopes article says,

The legends we tell reflect current societal concerns and fears as well as confirm the rightness of our views. It is through such stories that we attempt to make sense of our world, which at times can appear to be capricious and dangerous.

– Mikkelson, Urban Legend

In ancient times, they were transmitted orally, and some of them were written down. There is usually a moral and/or a theological component to them. Even though, as I said above, these wife-sister legends do not show proper ethics, there are moral components to them:

  1. Kings need to be wary of bringing a strange woman into their harem.
  2. Adultery is unacceptable, even for a king.
  3. Using deceit to protect yourself may bring guilt on the innocent.
  4. Our fears of the “other” are not necessarily true.

The theological lesson is quite simple: God keeps God’s promises, sometimes even in spite of our unworthiness.

Modern examples

Today with the Internet, an urban legend can spread all over the world in an instant. Recently, two people who don’t know each other told me Steve Perry, former lead singer of Journey, was dead. Turns out, he is very much alive. How did they hear the same “fake news”? Someone started a rumor on the Internet, a rumor which had no basis in fact. I don’t know if that qualifies as an urban legend, but it shows how something salacious or shocking can spread quickly, whether it’s true or not.

Perhaps a better example is one from my childhood. Around Halloween, we would hear stories of people in a nearby neighborhood hiding razor blades in candy. It wasn’t just from other kids. Some adults told us that, so it must be true. Then you heard kids who moved from other towns telling the same story about neighborhoods in their town. Did it ever really happen to anyone? As far as I know, there was never any evidence of it happening anywhere. But just about every kid had heard it as if it happened close to them.

What was the purpose of telling us that? Not to teach us a history lesson about our neighborhood. It was a cautionary tale against trusting others too easily. It warned us there are evil people out there who would enjoy doing harm to us. And unfortunately, you just have to watch the news to see that is true. It’s part of the whole lesson they tried to teach us, “Don’t talk to strangers.” And don’t just dive into a bag of candy you collected from strangers. At least, let your mom look at it first. Maybe you should look for signs of tampering. And bite into it carefully.

With most urban legends, there could have been some real life inspiration. For example, the legend involving a serial killer with a hook could have originated with a series of “lovers’ lane” murders in Texarkana in 1946.

This scared the pants off me when I was young.

So my conclusion is, since these “wife-sister” episodes have all the hallmarks of an urban legend, that’s how we should read them. There might have been a real incident one time, but the story spread so far and wide, there is no way to tell when, where, how often, or even if it really happened.

For Writers: Plotting

When it came to the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the author had two different traditions regarding Abraham passing off Sarah as his sister (plus the one about Isaac). Even if they were urban legends, they were both sacred traditions and needed to be preserved. This is not the only instance in the Abraham saga where it looks like there are two different versions of similar stories. Sarah drives Hagar and Ishmael away twice. God promises Abraham he will have a son with Sarah twice. There are two stories involving Lot in Sodom. Why all these doublets?

Besides coming from two different traditions, I believe the answer has to do with plotting. It turns out there is a way of plotting stories in the Bible that works well in this kind of situation.

It’s similar to the plotting of many popular stories today as well. In modern writing classes, when they teach about plot, they usually teach the most common pattern called Freytag’s Pyramid.

The story starts with Exposition, setting the scene for the protagonist (the main character). There is an inciting incident (the point where the line turns up) that takes him out of his ordinary life and forces him to pursue a goal. In the Rising Action, there are obstacles along the way. Often, though not always, there is an antagonist (villain) who opposes him. The action and peril keep rising until the story reaches a Climax (often the direct confrontation with the antagonist), the moment or conflict to which the Rising Action has been leading. After the Climax, there is Falling Action that leads to a Resolution.

For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the climax is when Dorothy and her friends are trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle, and Dorothy (protagonist) defeats the witch (antagonist). {Sorry for the spoiler, but this is one story I assume we all know}. But her goal was not to defeat the witch. Her goal was to get home. After the climax, the falling action is what she does to get home. The Wizard is revealed to be a fraud. Even so, he helps the Lion get his courage, the Tin Man get his heart, and the Scarecrow get his brain. The resolution is when Dorothy, with help from the Good Witch, makes it home.

In some stories, the resolution can be very short. One short story I’d say is must reading for any author is “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, first published in Collier’s on January 19, 1924. The climax happens near the end of the story, and the resolution is literally one sentence. So after the Climax, the falling action and resolution are where unanswered questions get answered and loose ends get tied up. How long is it? It is as long as you need it to be, whether it’s one sentence or several chapters. However, audiences today are used to fairly short resolutions. In Connell’s story, one sentence was enough for both the falling action and the resolution.

Plotting, Biblical style

In Biblical times, they found a longer resolution more satisfying, especially when each key event came full circle. In the diagram below, you can see how this pattern is played out in the Abraham saga. There is rising action leading to a climax, but each key event in the rising action is somehow mirrored in the falling action and resolution.

Story of Abraham events that form a pyramid
If we rotate left, it would form a pyramid. X marks the climax of the story–Expulsion and rescue of Hagar, Gen 16:1-16.

Sorry if it’s hard to read. I don’t have a drawing program (or I probably do but don’t know how to use it), so I couldn’t make this a true pyramid. But you see how each event from A to G builds to a Climax marked X. After the Climax, the events in the Resolution are marked with a prime and follow the same order (mostly) from G to A. The story began and ended with a genealogy (A and A’). The wife-sister episodes are marked D and D’. Each key event leading up to the climax is either echoed or resolved in the Resolution, and mostly in reverse order.

This diagram shows the first instance of Hagar leaving as the climax. I would have thought the climax would have been the birth of Isaac (Gen 21:1-7). That was the event all the action had been building to. But that would throw off the symmetry that’s clear in the diagram. This pattern of storytelling is common in the Bible, so it’s safe to assume the original audience would have found this story structure satisfying.

The episode with Abimelech is placed after the promise of a son for Abraham and Sarah, some twenty-five years after the episode with Pharaoh. Taken on its own, the story sounds like it should have happened earlier. Abraham sounds very inexperienced in terms of his faith in God, not too surprising in Egypt, but by now you really think he should know better.

Here’s my take. I think this was originally early in the story, but the author moved it to the D’ position to create a more enjoyable story experience for his audience. However, if he did this for the two wife-sister episodes, why did he place the border dispute with Abimelech (E’) in the “wrong” position? I don’t know. But if you remove E and E’ from the diagram, the overall story of Abraham follows the pattern perfectly.

Furthermore, the author placed the Abimelech story after the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have a son within a year. They are fertile and sexually active again. God had to keep Abimelech away from Sarah to protect the bloodline of the Messiah.

Finally, this episode also takes place after the destruction of the Cities of the Plain. When Abraham looked down on the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, it probably revitalized fears that “there is no fear of God in this place.” So while the details of the Abimelech story don’t make sense, the placement of the story here fits well with the overall story pyramid.

Conclusion

So to answer the issues I started with,

  1. Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be paragons of both faith and faithfulness (Rom 4:19), but these stories present them as anything but. However, the stories are not about their heroism. They are about how God kept God’s promises in spite of their unworthiness.
  2. The stories are presented in a way that suggest they could not have really happened. These are examples of urban legends. Therefore, any lessons we are supposed to glean from them have nothing to do with whether or not they “really happened.” The lessons are in the stories themselves.
  3. There is no evidence (that I know of) that kings in that world behaved this way. See #2.
  4. If they never really happened and made them look bad, why would a Jewish author present these stories of the founders of the Jewish people in such a bad light, not only once but twice (Gen 20:13)? The story is about how God keeps God’s promises, which was always an important theme to the Jewish people. The author had a doublet of what appeared to be the same story and wanted to preserve both versions. Ancient Hebrew story practices allowed him to do that by placing one in the rising action and the other in the falling action.

Resources for Writers

A list of American urban legends

Show Don’t Tell: checklists for showing different emotions

Plot Diagram Templates

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.”

Abraham’s Field of Dreams

This is continuing the genealogy that began with Noah’s son Shem (Gen 11:10ff).

map of Abraham's world
Abram went from Ur, Northwest up the Euphrates River, to Haran. Then from Haran, Southwest to Canaan (Genesis 11:31-12:9).

When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

(Gen 11:26-28 NRS)

Terah is the father of Abram (later renamed Abraham), who is the protagonist for the next several chapters of Genesis. Ur, an ancient city located in southern Mesopotamia. Chaldeans, a Semitic people of Mesopotamia, possibly spoke Aramaic.

Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah.

(Gen 11:29 NRS)

Nahor, the name of Abram’s grandfather (v. 24). Abram’s brother Nahor was probably the oldest, since he was named for the Patriarch.

Milcah…was the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. We are told of one son (Lot) and two daughters (Milcah and Iscah) of Haran, Nahor and Abram’s brother. So Nahor married his niece, Milcah. Later, we are told Sarai was Abram’s half-sister, the daughter of his father but not his mother (Gen 20:12).

This world was different in a number of ways. It was not taboo to marry a blood relative. Later, it will be forbidden in the Law of Moses. But this is a different time, even from Moses’ day.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

(Gen 11:30 NRS)

This one detail is going to dominate most of Abraham’s story.

Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there.

(Gen 11:31 NRS)

Terah set out for the land of Canaan. Why? Terah settled in Haran instead of Canaan. Why? To write a novel, you would have to answer those questions. You mean write something into the biblical story that’s not in the Bible? The Bible often does not give all the details. If you want to make it into fiction, you have to fill in some of those details.

Haran, a Hurrian city in Northern Mesopotamia. Was it coincidence that the town name was the same as Terah’s dead son? Haran was born and died in Ur of the Chaldees, so most likely he never lived in the city that bore his name.

Terah might not have wanted to leave Haran because the name reminded him of his son. A father being told of the death or imminent death of a son figures into the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well.

Abraham’s midlife crisis

poster Field of Dreams 30th Anniversary

The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

(Gen 11:32-12:1 NRS)

The days of Terah were two hundred five years. In a previous post, I talked about how the trend of lifespans from Adam to Abraham was going down. Abram’s grandfather Nahor lived to one hundred forty-eight. His father Terah lived to two hundred five. And Abram will live to one hundred seventy-five. So his lifespan is about average for this time period in Genesis.

This is the first time the LORD appears to Abram. It often makes me think of Field of Dreams. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsela. He hears a voice say, “If you build it, he will come.” Somehow, he knows the “it” he is supposed to build is a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield.

{For an irreverent look at the movie, check out “Nick Offerman presents lengthy, hilarious list of errors in the very lousy movie ‘Field of Dreams.’”}

He wants to do it, because, as he says, “I’m thirty-six years old. I love my family, I love baseball, and I’m about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my life.”

And he is afraid of becoming like his father. He says, “I never forgave my father for getting old.” He thinks his father must have heard voices too, but he didn’t follow them. He never did a crazy thing in his life. He’s having a midlife crisis, in other words.

Field of Dreams cornfield
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1 NRS)

Is this Abram’s midlife crisis? He’s seventy-five, but for a man who will go on to live to one hundred seventy-five, this is midlife. He knows his father heard voices. He followed a voice that told him to go to Canaan but then gave up. Is this part of what’s driving Abram? His father had a crazy dream then gave up halfway there? Maybe Abram is thinking he doesn’t want that to happen to him.

It says Abram heard the LORD call him after his father died. The way they tell it here, though, the math is off. Terah had Abram by the time he was seventy. Abram was seventy-five when he left (verse 4), so his father should have been no more than one hundred forty-five. If he lived to two hundred five, he should have still been alive when Abram left the city of Haran. Confused? If you’re reading the Bible, get used to it. This type of logical or mathematical impossibility happens more often than you’d think.

Go from your country and your kindred…, Does this mean they were originally from Haran? I always thought it meant it was their country because that is where his father’s house settled. Some commentators believe it means this is Terah’s land of origin, so at some point he migrated to Ur of the Chaldeans. If that’s true, settling in Haran was a homecoming. That would help explain why Terah never finished the journey to Canaan. He was home again. It would also explain why one of Terah’s sons was named Haran. I can’t be sure, but it does seem to make sense. Again, if you want to make a novel of this, these are details you need to consider.

God continues addressing Abram.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 (Gen 12:2-3 NRS)

There is a command: Go from your country and…your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Turns out the land is Canaan. Why didn’t God tell Abram that? That was where he thought he was going when they left Ur in the first place. Maybe God wants to make him practice obedience, even when he doesn’t have the full plan. That will be important for him later.

The LORD promises blessings on Abram.

  1. I will make a great nation of you.
  2. I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
  3. I will bless those who bless you.
  4. I will curse the one who curses you.
  5. In you all families of the earth shall be blessed.

That’s a good deal, isn’t it? How would you like to have God promise these things to you? The promises had to be big. It is never easy to leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. In those days even more than today, your country and family, including your extended family, were the most important factors for knowing who you were. God wants Abram to leave them behind to follow a new destiny. He doesn’t have to ask, “What’s in it for me?” But he does have to trust that God will keep God’s promises.

Looks like he’s got a bright future ahead, and all his dreams will come true. It won’t be as easy as it sounds, though. A hero’s journey never is.

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.

(Gen 12:4-5b NRS)

Lot was Abram’s nephew. We were told Lot’s father died before they left Ur of the Chaldees. It looks like Abram became a father figure for him.

Abram was seventy-five years old, but he is still active. He is not ready for the nursing home by any means. He is not “as good as dead” yet.

The persons whom they had acquired in Haran. This would include slaves, servants, and those who believed in Abram’s God. They came with his family along with their other possessions. Abram seems to have prospered in Haran, so the whole family probably did as well.

When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.

(Gen 12:5c-6 NRS)

The oak of Moreh is near Shechem, an important city at this time. The Canaanites were in the land. They were troublesome to Abram’s descendants.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

(Gen 12:7 NRS)

To your offspring I will give this land. The promise will be repeated in chapter 15. The promise of this particular land to Abram’s descendants is a major theme throughout the Torah and important to the descendants of Abram listening to this.

He built an altar to the LORD, something he does when the LORD appeared to him. These altars seem to be serving as landmarks (cf. v. 8; 13:3-4, 18; 22:9, 14, 24), a practice which Isaac and Jacob continued (26:25; 28:19; 35:1).

From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

(Gen 12:8-9 NRS)

He moved from Shechem to the hill country between Bethel and Ai (cf. 13:4; Jos 7:2; 8:9), and built another altar.

[He] invoked the name of the LORD. This sounds significant. Cf. Gen 4:26. Why does it only say in certain places Abraham invoked or called on the name of the LORD (13:4; 21:33)? I will have to investigate that further at some point.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land.

(Gen 12:10 NRS)

Anytime the land of Canaan was in famine, people seemed to flock to Egypt, because they usually had plenty of bread. The banks of the Nile were so fertile.

What’s in it for me?

So how about that? God told him to go to this land. He arrived, and the famine was severe in the land. “You sure this is the right place, LORD?”

Ray Kinsela talks to Shoeless Joe Jackson
Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Gordon/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5884738r) Ray Liotta, Kevin Costner Field Of Dreams – 1989 Director: Phil Alden Robinson Universal/Gordon USA Scene Still Baseball Drama Jusqu’au bout du rêve

This sounds like another Ray Kinsela moment. After he built the baseball diamond, the ghosts of past players appeared, wanting to play. Among them was “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, someone who figured in Ray’s last fight with his father before he left home for good. At a point where Ray is wondering about the purpose of it all, he asks Shoeless Joe about it.

Ray: I did it all. I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask, what’s in it for me?

Shoeless Joe: What are you saying, Ray?

Ray: What’s in it for me?

“Field of Dreams”

For writers: the moment when all is lost

This is typical for a “hero’s journey.” The hero hears the call to adventure. They see the foolishness of it, but they follow it anyway (often after resisting at first). They reach a point when all looks hopeless, and they feel like a fool for starting this adventure in the first place. They wonder if the sacrifices they made were worth it. They want to go back to life before the adventure, but they have crossed a point of no return. They wonder what was the purpose of it all when it was doomed to failure even before they began?

{Side note: I’m using the “singular they,” because writing he/she over and over again gets really awkward. To those who say, they is wrong because it’s plural, he is wrong because the subject is not masculine. It’s gender-neutral. So whoever is in charge of enforcing the rules of grammar, either accept the singular they or come up with a singular personal pronoun that is also gender-neutral so we don’t have to do he/she all over the place.}

Abram is not yet at that point. He did not ask what was in it for him, but God told him anyway (vv. 1-3). After all the big promises God just made him, how did he end up in a place with no food for miles and miles? Did his wife say, “I told you so”? He might be feeling the same frustration Ray did.

Did Abram forget he had a Terminator?

Like everyone else in the territory, Abram decided to bring his whole household to Egypt. This is the beginning of a controversial episode in Abram’s saga.

When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”

(Gen 12:11-13 NRS)

Sarai is beautiful in appearance, we are told here. Jewish tradition names her as one of the exceptional beauties of the Bible. Abram believes she is so attractive that the Egyptians will kill her husband just so she will be available. He wants her to say she is his sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life will be spared.

As her closest living male relative, they would have to respect her brother. Anyone who wants to marry her would have to negotiate with him. It’s not exactly a lie. She is his half-sister (Gen 20:12). But the fact that she is also his wife is a pretty big detail to omit.

I’m not going to be too hard on him for that. Any man in that situation would like to think he would tell everyone she is his wife, and fight to the death if anyone tried to take her away, but would you really? Lots of men are brave until they have a knife at their throat.

The biggest problem I have is I’m not sure this is real. Did the pharaohs ever really tell their soldiers and border guards, “If you see a beautiful married woman, kill the husband and bring her to my harem”? I’ve never heard of that outside the Bible.

Then again, the people coming to Egypt are desperate. There is no food where they came from. If this is the only place they can live, the Egyptians could impose pretty much any demands on them. It’s possible.

Another point is, God had just promised Abram, “The one who curses you, I will curse.” Did Abram not believe that? Why didn’t he think of telling them he is a prophet of the LORD, and if they harm him or his wife, they will face the wrath of his God? Egyptians did not worship the same God as Abram, but they still feared the gods – even ones that were not from their own pantheon. He could have been like the young John Connor in Terminator 2.

Edoard Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger from Terminator 2
“My own Terminator! Cool!”

Maybe his confidence is shaken because the LORD sent him to a land in famine. Can he really trust the LORD to protect him from the might of Pharaoh? So far, after such big promises, he is off to a pretty inauspicious start. Of course, as Terah already demonstrated, how you finish is more important than how you begin. What happens next is really controversial, but let’s pause now to observe how the author is speaking to his audience.

For Writers: Know your audience

The author(s) of Genesis do(es) some things that would make publishing it today difficult. For one, readers today generally don’t consider the genealogies to be the most exciting parts of the Bible, but they make up a major portion of Genesis, especially the early chapters. I talked about how the author effectively used the genealogies for foreshadowing, but I think most editors would look at that and say, “That’s too subtle, and too long for the payoff.”

Editors today want you to start with action, not backstory. That’s why they don’t like Prologues. But for this author, his audience would have wanted to know this. Since traditions were passed down orally long before they were written down, stories often had to serve several purposes. You want an exciting story, but part of the purpose of these stories was to pass on vital information for future generations.

In this case, the genealogy of Abraham was their genealogy as well, so this information was not boring or unnecessary to them. It was a different world and a different audience, but the rule held true then as it does today: know your audience.

The story of Abraham officially begins with the genealogy going back to Shem. To the original audience for this story, all people and nations traced their origins to one of three sons of Noah: Shem, Ham, or Japeth. The Jews were descended from Shem, which is where we get the term Semite.

But editors and readers today don’t want to start with a history lesson. They want to start with action. Because of that, if I were making this into a novel, chapter 12 of Genesis would be my chapter 1.

More for writers: know your protagonist

When we get to Terah, Abraham’s father, he potentially could have been the protagonist. It seems God wanted to get him or Abraham, maybe both, to Canaan, but Terah stopped short. We haven’t had a real protagonist for a while. Adam was at first, but he died in the fifth chapter. Noah appears to be a hero but comes to an ignoble end. Then we go through many generations with no one doing anything significant except bearing children to keep the bloodline going until we get to Terah, who starts something significant but doesn’t finish it. That is left to his son, Abram, and finally our protagonist emerges.

So far, we know Abram’s most significant family relationships.

  • Abram’s grandfather was Nahor. He was twenty-nine when he had Terah, and died at one hundred forty-eight years old.
  • The family trekked with Terah from Ur to Haran, a few hundred miles journey. He might have come from Haran originally, but his sons lived in Ur all their lives.
  • Sarai, Abram’s wife, is gorgeous and childless.
  • Haran, his brother, died in Ur.
  • Lot, his nephew, left Haran with Abram.
  • Nahor, his elder brother, is among their father’s household, but he appears to have stayed in Ur (Gen 11:31).
  • Nahor married their niece, Milcah. We will learn about their children later.
  • He has gathered possessions and people in Haran. Every indication is he is well off.

In a novel, you would not start out telling your reader all of this at once. You can give as much or as little of this as you feel necessary. You can intersperse parts of it into various points of the story as they become relevant. But you need to know your protagonist before you start writing. This author has shown he does, and we have a fascinating protagonist to follow in this story.

{For another take on the similarities between Abram and Ray Kinsela, see “Let’s go to the movies: ‘Field of Dreams.'”}

Writing exercise

  1. An often repeated rule of writing fiction is “Show don’t tell.” The author “told” us Abram’s significant relationships and extended family in Gen 11:24-32. Write a scene (or maybe two) “showing” this through action, dialog, and the characters’ interactions with each other.
Photo of Sarah with Isaac

Abraham’s Genealogy and a Lesson in Foreshadowing

Photo of Sarah with Isaac
“Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Gen 21:7 NRS)

In the series of character studies on Abraham, I’ve been taking my cues so far from Hebrews Chapter 11 and the stories that it relates about Abraham as an example of great faith. We’ve learned a lot about him and there are still more stories to go. So I want to go back now to the beginning and see how this story developed.

In some ways, Abraham represents a transition from really ancient times, when in the Bible you regularly see people living lifespans of hundreds of years, to getting closer to lifespans we are accustomed to.

If you go back to the first man, Adam, we have this.

When Adam had lived one hundred thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:3-5 NRS)

Before this, Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel, and Cain ended up murdering his brother, Abel. So now they have another son when Adam is one hundred thirty years old.

Don’t roll your eyes at me

Now if you’re rolling your eyes at me and saying, “Come on. We all know this is a fairy tale. It never really happened,” stop! It doesn’t matter whether it “really happened” for what I’m doing. I’m not looking at history. I’m looking at this story. So even if you don’t believe it really happened (and I will admit I have serious doubts myself) that doesn’t change the story. I’m looking to see what it would have meant to the people for whom it was originally written. Every nation in ancient times has some kind of origin story, and most of them we agree didn’t really happen. But we still study them to learn something about the people. What does this tell us about the people and how they saw themselves?

So even if you don’t believe this is real history there are still plenty of reasons to study it. In this case, I’m looking ahead to the story of Abraham and Sarah. There’s a pattern developing, and it’s going to be important when we get to Abraham and Sarah.

So when Adam is one hundred thirty years old, he has a son named Seth. Today, we couldn’t even imagine most of us living to one hundred thirty years old, much less, if we make it, then having a son. It would have been the same for the original audience of this document. It goes on to say,

The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred thirty years; and he died.

(Gen 5:4-5 NRS)

So Adam, the first man in this saga, lived nine hundred thirty years. Here’s some interesting trivia. Who was the oldest person in the Bible?

When Methuselah had lived one hundred eighty-seven years, he became the father of Lamech. Methuselah lived after the birth of Lamech seven hundred eighty-two years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty-nine years; and he died.

(Gen 5:25-27 NRS)

So the answer to that question, it was Methuselah. He lived nine hundred sixty-nine years and had his first son at one hundred eighty-seven.

By the time we get to Noah and the flood, he was six hundred years old when the flood happened. He lived a little bit longer after the flood, so he was somewhere in his six hundreds when he died. We’ve gone from 900-something to 600-something. And then we get to the descendants of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

Abraham’s Story Begins

The stories of Abraham are bookended by genealogical frameworks. So the genealogy of Shem is officially the beginning of Abraham’s story.

When Shem was one hundred years old, he became the father of Arpachshad two years after the flood; and Shem lived after the birth of Arpachshad five hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:10-11 NRS)

So his total lifespan is six hundred years. His father lives into his 600’s, so this is still in the same ballpark. He has a son named Arpachshad when he is one hundred. Remember, Abraham was a hundred when he had Isaac.

When Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah; and Arpachshad lived after the birth of Shelah four hundred three years, and had other sons and daughters.

(Gen 11:12-13 NRS)

Okay, Arpachshad is thirty-five years old when he has his first son. This is much closer to our normal, and importantly, closer to the normal of the first audience of the book of Genesis. There’s also a dramatic shift in lifespan. We’ve gone from his father living six hundred years to four hundred three years for Arpachshad. He was the father of Shelah.

When Shelah had lived thirty years, he became the father of Eber;

(Gen 11:14 NRS)

Shelah is thirty when he has his first son. Again we’re in territory that’s closer to the experience of the original audience. I’m going to skip ahead to verses 20-21.

When Reu had lived thirty-two years, he became the father of Serug; and Reu lived after the birth of Serug two hundred seven years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:20-21 NRS)

Again, we’re still in this normal range of having the first son somewhere around thirty years old. The lifespan, though, is going down. Shelah in verse 15 lived four hundred three years. Now Serug lived two hundred thirty-nine years. This is a few generations later, and you see there is a definite downward trend in terms of average lifespan. I’m going to skip ahead to Nahor.

Nahor Became the Father of Terah

When Nahor had lived twenty-nine years, he became the father of Terah; and Nahor lived after the birth of Terah one hundred nineteen years, and had other sons and daughters. 

(Gen 11:24-25 NRS)

We’re getting close to the birth of Abraham, and there is a significant drop off from over two hundred years. Nahor had his first son at twenty-nine, but lived after that one hundred nineteen years. So he lived to be one hundred forty-eight. That’s still a long time by our standards, but it is a far cry from the nine hundred sixty-nine years of Methuselah, and the six hundred years of Noah and Shem. When we get to Arpachshad, it’s four hundred some years, on down to Reu, who lives two hundred some years. And now Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, is down to one hundred forty-eight years. Next is Terah, who was Abram’s father.

When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

(Gen 11:26 NRS)

Does that mean they were triplets? Maybe. Maybe it just means that by the time he was seventy, he had three sons named Abram, Nahor and Haran. So when Terah was seventy, Abram had been born. They’re still living pretty long lifespans, into their hundreds, but again you see the downward trend.

Abram and Sarai

Abram's Counsel to Sarai by Tissot
You believe the angel, don’t you?

When we get into the story of Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah), he was eighty-six when he had his first son, Ishmael. But his wife, Sarai, still had not had a son. She was ninety-one when she had her first son, Isaac, and Abraham was one hundred. On average, men are having their first son around thirty years old. The author is showing that this is late for Abram and Sarai to be having children.

Since Eve, the author did not talk about the mothers in detail until now. This was a patriarchal society. The lineages were traced through the father. But it was important in this story that Abraham and Sarah have a son. It was so important that even when Abraham was one hundred, God came in and said, “It’s not too late.”

He went on to live to one hundred seventy-five. Sarah was one hundred twenty-seven years old when she died. When you first hear that, you might think that it was not impossible at that point, since people were living well into their hundreds on average. They were still in middle-age. The man still might be able to rise to the occasion. The woman still might be of fertile, childbearing age for that time. That would not have been normal, but maybe it would have been possible.

For writers: Know your audience’s expectations

The original audience probably would have wondered the same thing. The author wants to establish that Abraham and Sarah were both “too old” to procreate when Isaac was born. The author will make that clear at the right time. But at first, he wants to keep that question open.

As writers, we can learn something from this. The author knows his audience’s expectations. They have heard stories of people in ancient times living for hundreds of years. Before we even meet Abram and Sarai, the author is hinting at the answer, but not giving it away. He has established the average lifespan and average age when the first child is born has been going down steadily from Adam to Abraham.

When the moment of truth comes in the story, the author says when Sarah became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac, it was impossible not only for her but for Abraham. They had stopped having sex some years earlier. That part of their marriage life was a thing of the past. She had passed menopause, and Abraham was no longer able to rise to the occasion. To an audience that has heard of ancient lifespans being a few hundred years, he has hinted just enough in the genealogy to prepare them for this. She was ninety, he was ninety-nine, and even with the average lifespan back then, they were too old.

Also for writers: Foreshadowing

The first eleven chapters of Genesis answers questions about the origins of the world, people, and nations. The author, however, draws the added benefit of foreshadowing from the genealogies. When God promises a son to Abraham and Sarah, it is a crucial moment in their story. Abraham is ninety-nine, and Sarah is ninety. If you compare them with Methuselah, you might think they were just teenagers. They have plenty of time to have a son.

But the genealogy showed how, over time, the average age for childbirth and lifespan went down steadily. By the time you get to Nahor, Abraham’s grandfather, people are having their first child around thirty on average. Is it too late for Abraham and Sarah?

The author doesn’t necessarily need the foreshadowing. He states clearly that Sarah had passed menopause, and they were no longer having sex, so yes, it’s too late. But the foreshadowing hinted just enough to raise the question for a second and create a little more tension, before dropping the anvil on their hopes.

Foreshadowing is a good technique, but you have to know how to use it. If it’s too heavy-handed, it usually backfires. The reader sees it coming, so it lessens the impact. The author of Abraham’s story in Geneses used it subtly, and it added another layer of tension.

If you want to learn more about using foreshadowing effectively, this is a good example to study.

  1. Skim chapters 5 through 11 of Genesis. You don’t have to memorize everyone’s names and ages. Just notice how the numbers go down.
  2. Then read chapter 18. Start with verses 1-10 and pause. The angel of the LORD has just made the promise. You know Abraham and Sarah’s ages as compared with the last four generations or so. How does it feel? Do you wonder if it is still possible for them?
  3. Then read Sarah’s reaction in verses 11-12. That’s your answer. Sarah (and we must assume Abraham also) believes that ship has sailed.

Not that it’s a surprise, but did that moment of uncertainty make the impact of her hopelessness stronger for you? It did for me. So there’s an example of an effective use of foreshadowing.

Do you think you could use it in your story? How could you use subtle foreshadowing to heighten the tension at your story’s crucial moment?

What do you mean “too old”?

Abraham Serving the Three Angels by Rembrandt
The angel tells Abraham he and Sarah will have a son. Do you see Sarah eavesdropping?

Then the angel of the LORD steps in one day, visits them in their tent, and says, “By this time next year Sarah will have a son.”

She laughed, and the angel is like, “Why did you laugh?”

She said, “I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh yes, you did laugh.”

Great use of dialog, by the way. You feel her nervousness when she says, “I didn’t laugh.” And then her embarrassment when the angel says, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

But the angel said something to her that turned things around. Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

They had heard promises like this before. God had promised Abraham a son of “his own issue,” but God did not say when and did not promise it would be with Sarah. So he ended up sleeping with Hagar, because Sarah said, “I can’t give you a son. Go in to my handmaid. You need to have a son, because God commanded it.”

He did, and he had a son. God promised to bless Ishmael. But this time God promised specifically, not just Abraham’s issue, but you, Sarah, will have a son by this time next year. I know it looks impossible, but is anything too wonderful for the LORD?

They counted God faithful

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac
“Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”

The angel of the LORD said in effect, “God made a promise. Do you believe it?”

They did, even though it was “impossible,” and even though anyone would probably wonder why God waited until now to fulfill that promise. Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered whether they believed or not if Abraham couldn’t get it up. God must have given him some heavenly Viagra. (Hey, the Bible talks about this frankly, so why can’t I?)

Shortly after that encounter with the angel, Sarah started menstruating again. This was their chance. If Abraham was able. Around the same time, Abraham’s dead flesh came back to life. Guess what, Sarah? For the first time in several years, they came together again as husband and wife.

God told them they would have a son together “at the appointed time,” which was within one year. They named him Isaac, which means “he laughs,” because they had both laughed when God first said it to them.

They did not believe instantly. They did not believe constantly throughout their lives. They went through periods of doubt, probably wondering if Abraham was insane. But this time the angel promised, they both heard it, and they knew God was serious. They counted him faithful who had promised, and that’s why they are in the “faith Hall of Fame” of Hebrews Chapter 11.