Abraham’s Story Ends

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

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

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

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

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

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

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

An Old Man Full of Years

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

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

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

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

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

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

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

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

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

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

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

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

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

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

The Handmaid and Her Son

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

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

From Havilah to Shur

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

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

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

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

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

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

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

Alongside of, or against His People?

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

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

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

The End

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

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

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

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


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

“Props” for Ishmael

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Translation Notes

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

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

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

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

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

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

Opposite Egypt

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

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

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

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

(pg 294)

BDB says,

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

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

In the Direction of Assyria

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

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

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

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

BDB says,

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

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

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

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

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

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

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

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

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

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

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur

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

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

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

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

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

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

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

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

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

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

There Was Rebekah

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

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

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

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

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

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

A Place to Spend the Night

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

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

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

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

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

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

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

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

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

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

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

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

He said, “Speak on.”

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

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

Telephoning

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

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

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

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

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

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

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

The Thing Comes from the LORD

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

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

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

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

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

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

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

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

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

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

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

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

Who Are All These Camels For?

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

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

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

Isaac Meets His Bride

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

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

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

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

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

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

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

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

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

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

For Writers: Self-Editing

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

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

And then we have this.

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

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

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

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

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

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

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

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

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

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

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

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

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

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

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

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

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

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

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

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

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

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

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

From Seinfeld, George explains "shiksappeal" to Elaine

Sarah Dies and Isaac Needs a Wife

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

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

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

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

(Gen 23:1-2 NRS)

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

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

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

Find the Anachronism

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

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

(Gen 23:3-6 NRS)

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

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

A Hero’s Welcome

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

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

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

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

(Gen 23:7-11 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Listen to Me! No, You Listen to Me!

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

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

(Gen 23:12-15 NRS)

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

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

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

An Agreement Is Reached

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

(Gen 23:16 NRS)

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

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

(2Sa 24:24 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 23:17-20 NRS)

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

For Writers: Humanizing Your Heroes

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

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

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

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

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

Finding a Wife for Isaac

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

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

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

For some reason, he decides now is the time.

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

(Gen 24:1 NRS)

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

Under His Thigh? Blessed Be.

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

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

(Gen 24:2-3a NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:3b-4 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:5-9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Further Study

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

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

Wikipedia

The Hittites

Hittites of the Bible

Kiryat Arba

Translation Notes

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

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

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

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

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


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

8737  שָׁמַע  

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

(Halladay, p. 377)

Ishmael, a Different Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Brings Laughter for Sarah

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

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

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

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

How Dare He Play with My Son!

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

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

(Gen 21:8-11 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 16:25 NRS)

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

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

The Matter Was Very Distressing to Abraham

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

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

(Gen 21:12-13 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

The Child of the Promise

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

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

(Gen 16:12 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 21:14)

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

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

Sarah’s Bad Side

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

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

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

(Gen 21:15-16 NRS)

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

“God Hears”

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

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

(Gen 21:17-18 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 21:19 NRS)

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

God Was With the Boy

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

(Gen 21:20-21 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Hmm. Something amiss here.

How Old Was Ishmael When This Happened?

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

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

(Gen 21:14-15 NRS)

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

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

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

and he grew up;

(Gen 21:20 NRS)

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

Another Doublet?

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

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

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

What Does It Mean?

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

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

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

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

An Allegory

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

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

(Gal 4:31 NRS)

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

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

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

(Eph 2:8-9 NRS)

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

Translation Notes

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

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

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

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


Yeled = “the child” (Gen 21:14, 15)

Hol3340  יֶלֶד

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


Na`ar = “the boy.” (Gen 21:20)

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


Gadal = “he grew up”

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

Hol1442  גָּדַל (gadal)

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

Angel stops Abraham from killing Isaac, ram shown

Sacrifice of Isaac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Heb 11:17-19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

And he said, “Here I am.”

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

(Gen 22:1-2 NRS)

Offer him as a burnt offering

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

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

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

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

(NRS)

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

Child Sacrifice in Canaan

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 22:3-4 NRS)

On the third day

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

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

(Gen 22:5 NRS)

We will come back to you…maybe

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

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

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

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

 Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!”

And he said, “Here I am, my son.”

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

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

(Gen 22:6-8 NRS)

How much wood was Isaac carrying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bound his son Isaac

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

(Gen 22:9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

And he said, “Here I am.”

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

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

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

(Gen 22:10-14 NRS)

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

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

Now I know that you fear God

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

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

I will indeed bless you…

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

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

(Gen 22:15-19 NRS)

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

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

And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies

“Okay, that’s good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(NRS)

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

For comparison, Jesus and Isaac were both:

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

All’s well that ends well, right?

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

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

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

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

God himself will provide the lamb

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

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

Conclusion, sort of

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

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

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

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

(Gal 3:29 NRS)