Instead of the tradition of “giving something up for Lent,” I’m reflecting on passages in the Bible that best portray its meaning. First on the list is when Jesus was baptized. Each of the Gospels portrays it slightly different. For simplicity, I’ve chosen Matthew. Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes come from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
(Matthew 3:16-17 NRSV)
A voice from heaven. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s God. There is a lot packed into what God says. Three scriptures are echoed here that together paint a fascinating portrait of Jesus and his mission.
“This is my Son…”
Son is not capitalized in all translations. Like most Christians, I think it is appropriate in this case. In a sense, I could call myself a son of God, but not Son (with a capital S) of God. We reserve that title for Jesus alone.
This echoes a line from a coronation psalm.
“You are my son; today I have begotten you.”
This psalm was recited, or likely sung, at the coronation of a new king. In ancient Israel, the king could be called a son of God, but not Son (capital S) of God. It extols the king for his power and assures him he has God’s blessing. Even other kings and rulers better beware of him. God is ready to punish anyone who crosses him or defies his authority. That is exactly the attitude we expect God to have toward God’s anointed, right? “Touch not mine anointed.”
But does that truly reflect the kind of king he would be?
This recalls God’s word to Abraham.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…”
Just as Abraham had one son (of his wife, Sarah), God has one Son, whom God loves. So far, it sounds like Jesus has it made in the shade. He is a king, God’s only Son, beloved of God, probably more than any other person on earth. Just as Abraham loved Isaac.
“…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.”
So if God is referring back to the Abraham and Isaac, that means at the same time God affirms him as the “beloved Son,” God also says he must be sacrificed.
“…with whom I am well pleased.”
This comes from a passage in Isaiah about a figure called “the suffering servant.”
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
With whom I am well pleased recalls In whom my soul delights. God also says, I have put my spirit upon him. The Spirit of God descend on Jesus like a dove. Again, it sounds like things are going good for Jesus. Who wouldn’t like to hear God say God is well pleased with them? But in context, it means he will be the chosen servant who suffers for the redemption of others. That becomes clearer in another passage from Isaiah.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
Some translations say, “Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him….” I think the NRSV is more accurate. It’s not like God is a sadist who gets pleasure from seeing people tortured. But in this case, it was God’s will for him to suffer as he eventually did. But by using pleased instead of will, it is easy to see the connection with God’s pronouncement. Let’s continue.
When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
He will be crushed as an offering for sin. He will live as a servant, and in the end, he will suffer in ways most of us cannot begin to comprehend. None of us knows what it is to be crucified, but it was a torture designed to totally humiliate and inflict as much pain as possible. The word excruciating derives from crucifixion. No one would go through it voluntarily. But that is exactly what God would call him to do, to suffer not for his own sin but for the sins of others. In doing so, he would make many righteous.
We know how his story goes. He will be crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day, he will rise from the dead. He will descend into darkness, but then he shall see light. But as I read it, I try to put myself in the shoes of people there who witnessed the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, who heard what God said about him. Did they really understand it?
Could he be the Messiah?
The text does not say who heard the voice. I think it’s safe to assume Jesus heard it. I’m approaching it as if John the Baptist and the others who were there heard it as well. They would not have to recognize all those scripture references I gave to know this guy must be special. But if they did recognize those echoes of prophecy, they would be thinking, “Could he be the Messiah?”
That question dogged Jesus throughout his ministry. You might think he would be happy to say, “Yes, I am.” But the title Messiah was fraught with political and religious tension. He had to be careful who he revealed it to. When King Herod found out he was destined to be “king of the Jews,” he tried to have him killed. The Romans knew the legend of a coming Messiah, a son of David, who would throw off the yoke of Roman occupation and re-establish the Davidic kingdom.
The Jews lived for the hope that they would see that happen. They believed Elijah would return just before the Messiah.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
Those who were with John believed he was the messenger, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah. If the forerunner was here, surely the Messiah could not be far behind. And then they hear God call this man “my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased.” The hairs on their necks must have stood up.
What did they hear in that message? He was a king, probably from the Davidic line. The Spirit of God rested upon him. God called him his beloved Son. God is well-pleased with him. I’m sure more than one of them thought, he must be the one. If they thought of the song in Isaiah 42:1-4, they would have thought of the last line,
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
Justice for them began with defeating Rome and making Israel a great nation once again. If he was God’s anointed, no power on earth could stop him. And the vast majority who followed him, including the twelve, wanted to be at his side when it happened. When they thought of the Messiah, they thought of glory, power, dominion, and freedom. They thought of the victories of Moses, Joshua, and David over God’s enemies that built the nation. They thought it was about to happen again. They would have had a lot of questions for him. They wanted to be sure they understood what they had just witnessed. But before they could ask any questions, he left immediately to wander in the wilderness for forty days (Mat 4:1-11). I guess he was not eager to answer those questions just yet. He knew how hard they were to teach.
One recurring theme in the Gospels is how people keep wanting to call him the Messiah, but they don’t understand everything that comes with it. The glorious king was just one side of the coin. The flip side was the suffering servant. He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. He would not overthrow their enemies. He would submit to death at their hands. All those people who followed him as the “Son of David,” how many of them continued to follow him to the cross?
A stiff-necked and stubborn people
When I see what passes for religious programming now, I can’t help but wonder, are we any different? They talk about victory, health and wealth, divine protection from enemies and pandemics, dominion over the earth, and personal freedom. “Don’t mess with me! I’m one of the King’s kids!”
You don’t hear about God’s power being made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). You don’t hear that having the mind of Christ means a willingness to serve and sacrifice for others (Phil 2:5-8). You don’t hear that you share in his glory by sharing in his suffering (Rom 8:17). Their message is resurrection without crucifixion.
What does it mean to follow a Messiah who came as king, Son of God, servant, and sacrifice, all at the same time? If you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comments below.
Next, what happened to Jesus when he went into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil? (Mat 4:1-11).
My First Principle of Recovery is “God is for
your recovery and healing, not against it.” The scripture I connected it to is
Isaiah 53:3-6. It is part of the fourth suffering servant song (Isa 52:13-53:12).
This is the longest of the servant songs. I think in this song, more than anywhere else in Second Isaiah, the Jews really begin to make sense of the suffering they have been through. Their suffering has led to justice, not only for themselves. It has taught justice to the nations who persecuted them in ways nothing else could.
won’t go through the whole thing. But in the part I am commenting on, we hear
from the nations (Gentiles) who saw the Jews in captivity and are astonished at
their reversal of fortune. Here is a sample of what they say.
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Isaiah 53:3-6 ESV)
He/him refers to the
Jewish people personified in the suffering servant. The nations despised
and rejected him. They thought he was stricken, smitten by God. (Certainly,
many of the Jews thought that about themselves during Exile.) But somehow, the
nations have come to understand the servant’s suffering has brought peace,
healing, and forgiveness for their transgressions and iniquities.
the song from 42:1-4, the servant quietly and patiently endures suffering and
as a result brings justice. Is it justice for himself (the Jews) or for the
nations who oppressed him? It’s not entirely clear but seems to be for himself.
It says he would endure until he brings forth justice. But in this fourth song,
that has already happened. The servant suffered to the point that people hid
their faces from him, because his face was so marred he no longer looked
see the startling claim that the servant underwent this suffering because the
LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all. He took the punishment that should
have been theirs. They went astray in the injustice they committed against him
(53:8). But instead of fighting back, he patiently endured. And through his
silent witness, the Gentiles who oppressed the Jews have seen the error of
their ways and repented. In this way, he brings justice to all nations. As my HarperCollins
NRSV Study Bible says,
“Israel’s suffering suggested God had rejected it. Now, however, contrary to the nations’ original impression, they see that the servant’s suffering was vicarious, God’s surprising way of restoring all people to himself” (cf. 42:2-3; Mat 8:17; 1 Pet 2:22-25).
(HC 53:4-6 footnote)
And that ultimately was God’s goal, to restore all people to himself—not just the Jews but the Gentiles, even the Gentiles who oppressed them. Even the Babylonians? Yes, even the Babylonians. By recognizing God’s hand in restoring the Jews as a people and a nation, they repent of their injustice and receive forgiveness for their sins. So none of the Jews’ suffering in Exile was in vain. They could not see any purpose in it before, but now they can.
Notice that God did not give this message to them until God could point to clear signs that their redemption was already beginning to happen. Before then, they would not have been able to hear this. They were angry with God. If God made a promise, they would not believe it until they saw it. So God did two things. 1) God waited until they could see the promise beginning to happen, so they could believe it; and 2) God told them ahead of time how it would ultimately be fulfilled—through Cyrus, king of Persia (Isa 45). So when Cyrus told the Jews anyone who wanted to could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city, they knew it was the hand of God.
He Grew Up Like a Young Plant
The second verse of Isaiah 53 says this. “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground.” Many people believe the reference to the root and young plant connects the servant with the line of David. Almost as soon as the hope of a Messiah began, the Jews believed the Messiah would be from the root of the Davidic dynasty. They had seen that dynasty come to an end (with Exile). But the promise here is the Messiah would reestablish it, like when a tree is cut down, then from the root, the tree is reborn and grows out of the stump like a young plant. I don’t know if the Jews in Second Isaiah’s time would have made that connection, but they might have noticed the similarity with this in First Isaiah.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. … On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
(Isa 11:1, 10 NRS)
They certainly would have known the stump of Jesse and the root of Jesse referred to the Davidic dynasty. Could they really be saying the Messiah and the Suffering Servant are one and the same? That appears to be a contradiction in terms.
The Servant as Messiah
First Isaiah spoke of justice coming through a Righteous King from David’s lineage. Second Isaiah spoke of justice coming through the Suffering Servant. Christians believe Jesus was the Messiah because he fulfilled both roles. Modern Jews reject that, because they expect the Messiah to be the Righteous King but not the Suffering Servant. That appeared to have been the disciples’ expectation as well. Every time Jesus talked about how he had to suffer and die at the hands of sinners, they either told him they would not allow it, or they changed the subject. They thought his being the Messiah meant he would be the Righteous King who would reclaim the throne of David and throw off the yoke of Roman occupation. It appears from reading the Gospels the crowds who followed Jesus expected it too.
I was surprised when I found Rabbinic Judaism actually connects the Messiah with
the Suffering Servant. The beginning of Second Isaiah’s song says,
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.
(Isa 52:13 NRS)
the Targum Jonathan quotes this, it says “… my servant messiah shall
prosper. …” This makes the connection explicit where before it was only
The Rabbis also point to this verse from Ruth:
At mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here, and eat some of this bread, and dip your morsel in the sour wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he heaped up for her some parched grain. She ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.
Midrash Rabbah connects this verse with the servant messiah.
Another explanation: He is speaking of king Messiah; ‘Come hither,’ draw near to the throne; ‘and eat of the bread,’ that is, the bread of the kingdom; ‘and dip thy morsel in the vinegar,’ this refers to his chastisements, as it is said, ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa 53:3].
If it seems like a stretch to connect Boaz’s invitation to Ruth to dip her bread in vinegar with the chastisements of the servant messiah, remember Ruth and Boaz were the great-grandparents of David. Everything they did was connected to the Messiah. And as I said before, considering the Rabbis have way more experience reading and interpreting the Hebrew scriptures than you or I will ever have, I can’t dismiss what they say.
A Leper Messiah
is my favorite connection, from the Babylonian Talmud. Isaiah 53:4 says,
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
(Isa 53:4 NRS)
The Talmud comments,
The Messiah, what is his name? The Rabbis say, The Leper Scholar, as it is said, ‘surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God and afflicted…’.
Where the text says, “… we accounted him stricken,” the Talmud quotes it as, “… we did esteem him a leper ….” That was even stronger than “stricken,” because the ultimate punishment from God was leprosy, a sure sign you were smitten and afflicted of God. I find the “leper scholar” an interesting term. Whoever the Messiah is, he will be a scholar (which makes me feel good), meaning he will diligently study and know the scriptures.
The leprosy might have been metaphorical, but as a metaphor it would refer to someone who people believed God had smitten and was punishing, when in fact God was pleased with the servant because he willingly suffered to save others and bring forth justice. The Messiah, the Rabbis say, is also one they called “The Leper Scholar.” Of course, I can’t hear that without thinking of the leper messiah in “Ziggy Stardust.”
Bowie said he created the character of Ziggy Stardust as a way to help him cope
with mental health issues in his family and the madness of the Rock and Roll
lifestyle. He was quoted as saying,
One puts oneself through such psychological damage in trying to avoid the threat of insanity. As long as I could put those psychological excesses into my music and into my work, I could always be throwing it off.
Isn’t it interesting that Bowie created this character who helped him avoid insanity, called the character a “leper messiah” in his eponymous song, and thousands of years before, the Rabbis compared the Messiah of scripture to a leper. Like a leper, he was despised and rejected. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isa 53:2 NRS). Also like a leper, people thought his suffering, affliction, and pain meant God rejected him, and therefore he was smitten and punished by God.
God called him “the righteous one” (53:11), because he willingly took on our
pain, suffering, sickness, affliction, sins and iniquities, by making himself an
offering for sin (Isa 53:9, 10). They thought God had forsaken him, but “it was
the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” (53:10), not to punish him for his
sin, but to save us from our sin and the brokenness and injustice that comes
out of his affliction and pain, he would see light, because he would lead many
to righteousness, forgiveness, and healing (53:11-12). To people like the exiled
Jews, who were first beginning to see the light at the end of their dark night
of the soul, the suffering servant (or leper messiah) was the perfect savior.
The First Principle of Recovery
Perhaps my experience with mental illness makes Second Isaiah’s leper messiah the perfect savior for me as well. Having recently come out of my own dark night of the soul, I appreciate his suffering so much more. I think I understand now in a way I never have, God not only sent the leper messiah to save us. In Jesus, God became the leper messiah who bore the brokenness of many and made intercession for sinners and all of us who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to our own way.
Why would God do that? So our relationship with God could be restored. That is good news for everyone who knows they are broken: mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually. And it brings me back to my first principle for recovery: A god who is willing to do that for us surely is for our recovery and healing, not against it.
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
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
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 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.”
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?
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.
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
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.”
Kiryat Arba or Qiryat
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.
1. hear: abs. Is 12; w. acc.: s.one speak Gn 276, voice 310, trumpet Je 419 … listen 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.