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

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


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

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

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

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

Was this David’s M.O.?

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

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

Nabal the “Fool”

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

(1 Sam 25:2-3 NRS)

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

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

1 Sam 25:4

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

A Peaceful Delegation

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

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

1 Sam 25:5-8

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

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

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

On a Feast Day

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

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

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

Neh 8:10

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

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

Deu 14:28-29

And again in Deuteronomy,

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

Deu 26:12-13 NRS

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

This is said today as part of the Passover Seder:

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

(Haggadah)

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

The Fool Responds

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

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

(1Sa 25:10-11 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Quick, Tell Abigail

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

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

(1Sa 25:14-16 NRS)

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

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

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

Now let’s hear the rest of his testimony.

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

1Sa 25:17

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

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

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

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

Evil Is Coming

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

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

1Sa 25:21-22

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

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

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

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

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

What Was He Doing Instead?

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

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

(2Sa 19:32 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did He Change?

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

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

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

The Death of Samuel

Just before this story begins, we are told,

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

1Sa 25:1

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

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

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

It Was a Rough World

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

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

“Biblical” Justice

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

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

(Exo 22:22-24 NRS)

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

His Men Wanted It

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

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

Rising Frustration That Came to a Head

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

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

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

(Psa 13:1-2 NRS)

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

Insults that Touched His Own Insecurities

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

Nabal said, “Who is David?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

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

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

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

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

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

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

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

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

There Was Rebekah

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

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

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

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

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

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

A Place to Spend the Night

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

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

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

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

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

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

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

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

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

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

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

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

He said, “Speak on.”

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

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

Telephoning

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

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

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

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

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

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

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

The Thing Comes from the LORD

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

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

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

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

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

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

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

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

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

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

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

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

Who Are All These Camels For?

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

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

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

Isaac Meets His Bride

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

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

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

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

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

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

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

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

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

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

For Writers: Self-Editing

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

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

And then we have this.

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

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

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

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

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

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

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

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

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

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

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

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

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

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

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

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

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

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

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

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

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

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

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

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.

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.