Ancient Hospitality–Sodom and Gomorrah, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop, Sodom

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

(Genesis 19:1a)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:1b-3 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:6-8 NRS)

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

Ancient Hospitality

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

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

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

Bedouin Appearance, Customs, and Character

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:10-11 NRS)

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

But what about homosexuality?

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

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

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

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

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

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

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

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

WWJD?

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

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

(Mat 10:14-15 NRS)

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

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

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

Did Abraham miscalculate?

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

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

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

(Gen 19:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

Translation Notes

האֶחָ֤ד בָּֽא־לָגוּר֙  (Gen 19:9 WTT)

This one came to sojourn…

Hol1494  גּור verb qal infinitive construct homonym 1  

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

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

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.

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.

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown

Sacrifice of Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Heb 11:17-19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

And he said, “Here I am.”

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

(Gen 22:1-2 NRS)

Offer him as a burnt offering

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

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

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

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

(NRS)

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

Child Sacrifice in Canaan

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 22:3-4 NRS)

On the third day

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

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

(Gen 22:5 NRS)

We will come back to you…maybe

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

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

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

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

 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

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

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

(Gen 22:6-8 NRS)

How much wood was Isaac carrying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bound his son Isaac

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

(Gen 22:9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

And he said, “Here I am.”

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

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

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

(Gen 22:10-14 NRS)

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

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

Now I know that you fear God

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

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

I will indeed bless you…

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

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

(Gen 22:15-19 NRS)

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

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

And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies

“Okay, that’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(NRS)

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

For comparison, Jesus and Isaac were both:

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

All’s well that ends well, right?

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

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

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

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

God himself will provide the lamb

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

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

Conclusion, sort of

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

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

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

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

(Gal 3:29 NRS)

Entertaining Angels Unaware

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

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

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

(Heb 11:11 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Hospitality In The Biblical World

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

Turning our attention to Genesis 18,

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

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

So they said, “Do as you have said.”

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

(Gen 18:1-6 NRS)

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

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

Sir, Please, Let Me Serve You

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

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

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

Prepare The Fatted Calf For Them

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

(Gen 18:7-8 NRS)

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

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

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

And he said, “There, in the tent.”

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

(Gen 18:9-10a NRS)

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

As Good As Dead

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

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

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

(Gen 18:10b-12 NRS)

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

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

What Did Sarah Know And When Did She Know It?

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

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

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

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

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

He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

(Gen 18:13-15 NRS)

She Laughs

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did Sarah Laugh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise Fulfilled

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

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

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Heb 11:13-14 NRS)

Seeing From A Distance

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

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

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

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

(Heb 13:2 ESV)

Translation Notes

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

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him

(Gen 18:10 NRS)

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

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

Hol2487  חַי

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

(pg 101)

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

My Husband Or My Lord?

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

(Gen 18:12 NRS)

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

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

(1Pe 3:6 NRS)

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

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

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

Shall I Have Pleasure?

The Hebrew word for pleasure here is `ednah.

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

(pg 266)

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

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

(Pro 5:3-5 NRS)

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

If Sarah could have sung “Highway to Hell”

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

A Mitzvah Is Not For Pleasure

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

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

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

Give Me That Old(er) Time Religion

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

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

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