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.

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

The Meaning of the “Wife-Sister” Stories

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

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

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

From what I’ve gathered, God appears to Abraham for these reasons:

  1. To make promises to Abraham (usually through a covenant).
  2. To keep promises to Abraham
  3. To protect the bloodline of the Messiah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Did This Really Happen?

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

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

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

New Word: Doublet

Oxford Online Biblical Studies defines a doublet as

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

Doublet

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

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

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

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

Urban Legends

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

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

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

-David Mikkelson, Urban Legend Definition

Wikipedia says:

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

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

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

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

– Mikkelson, Urban Legend

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

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

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

Modern examples

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

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

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

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

This scared the pants off me when I was young.

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

For Writers: Plotting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plotting, Biblical style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

So to answer the issues I started with,

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

Resources for Writers

A list of American urban legends

Show Don’t Tell: checklists for showing different emotions

Plot Diagram Templates

Abraham’s Field of Dreams

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

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

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

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

(Gen 11:26-28 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:29 NRS)

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

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

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

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

(Gen 11:30 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:31 NRS)

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

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

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

Abraham’s midlife crisis

poster Field of Dreams 30th Anniversary

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

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

(Gen 11:32-12:1 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God continues addressing Abram.

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

 (Gen 12:2-3 NRS)

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

The LORD promises blessings on Abram.

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

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

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

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

(Gen 12:4-5b NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 12:5c-6 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 12:7 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 12:8-9 NRS)

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

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

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

(Gen 12:10 NRS)

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

What’s in it for me?

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

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

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

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

Shoeless Joe: What are you saying, Ray?

Ray: What’s in it for me?

“Field of Dreams”

For writers: the moment when all is lost

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

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

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

Did Abram forget he had a Terminator?

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

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

(Gen 12:11-13 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Writers: Know your audience

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

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

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

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

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

More for writers: know your protagonist

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

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

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

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

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

Writing exercise

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

Abraham’s Genealogy and a Lesson in Foreshadowing

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 5:3-5 NRS)

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

Don’t roll your eyes at me

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

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

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

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

(Gen 5:4-5 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 5:25-27 NRS)

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

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

Abraham’s Story Begins

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

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

(Gen 11:10-11 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:12-13 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:14 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:20-21 NRS)

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

Nahor Became the Father of Terah

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

(Gen 11:24-25 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 11:26 NRS)

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

Abram and Sarai

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

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

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

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

For writers: Know your audience’s expectations

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

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

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

Also for writers: Foreshadowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean “too old”?

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

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

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

She said, “I didn’t laugh.”

“Oh yes, you did laugh.”

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

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

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

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

They counted God faithful

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entertaining Angels Unaware

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

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

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

(Heb 11:11 NRS)

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

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

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

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

Hospitality In The Biblical World

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

Turning our attention to Genesis 18,

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

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

So they said, “Do as you have said.”

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

(Gen 18:1-6 NRS)

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

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

Sir, Please, Let Me Serve You

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

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

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

Prepare The Fatted Calf For Them

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

(Gen 18:7-8 NRS)

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

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

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

And he said, “There, in the tent.”

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

(Gen 18:9-10a NRS)

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

As Good As Dead

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

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

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

(Gen 18:10b-12 NRS)

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

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

What Did Sarah Know And When Did She Know It?

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

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

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

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

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

He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

(Gen 18:13-15 NRS)

She Laughs

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

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

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

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

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

Why Did Sarah Laugh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Promise Fulfilled

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

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

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Heb 11:13-14 NRS)

Seeing From A Distance

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

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

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

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

(Heb 13:2 ESV)

Translation Notes

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

And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him

(Gen 18:10 NRS)

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

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

Hol2487  חַי

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

(pg 101)

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

My Husband Or My Lord?

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

(Gen 18:12 NRS)

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

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

(1Pe 3:6 NRS)

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

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

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

Shall I Have Pleasure?

The Hebrew word for pleasure here is `ednah.

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

(pg 266)

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

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

(Pro 5:3-5 NRS)

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

If Sarah could have sung “Highway to Hell”

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

A Mitzvah Is Not For Pleasure

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

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

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

Give Me That Old(er) Time Religion

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

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

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

The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

Moira in handmaid's uniform, let them think they control you
Samira Wiley plays Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Part one of this character study showed how Sarai and Hagar mirror Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale. That post ended with Hagar running away from Sarai. Problem was she was running through a desert. Out there in the middle of nowhere, she finds a spring of water. I’m guessing not a moment too soon. And then she receives an unusual visitor.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

(Gen 16:7 NRS)

Who is the angel of the LORD? It appears a few times in the Bible. Sometimes when God wanted to appear to someone, the angel of the LORD showed up there instead. This Angel seems to be a divine figure who can stand in for God when God’s personal appearance would be impractical. Some Christian commentators believe it was a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Christ.

In the ancient world, people believed no mortal human could look on God’s face and live (v. 13; cf. Exo 33:20). It wouldn’t do if God wanted to give a message to someone, and they died the moment God appeared to them, would it? It seems, though, the Angel could speak to people face to face safely (cf. Gen 32:30; Jud 13:22). Are these direct encounters with God or with the angel of the LORD? Hard to know just from the text. But the Angel speaks to Hagar.

And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

(Gen 16:8-9)

I know what you’re thinking. This is not God endorsing slavery or Sarai’s harsh treatment. You’ll see that when we talk about the story in its context. Keep reading.

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

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He 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.”

(16:10-12)

What are you thinking now? Gee, thanks God (for nothing). Again, context makes all the difference. There’s a reason God says this. Keep reading.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

(16:13)

This goes back to what I said about the angel of the LORD earlier. She is surprised (shocked, probably) that she saw God and was still alive. She believes it was God, but we are told it was the angel of the LORD. Which was it? In scenes like this, the text is usually ambiguous about it, like when Jacob wrestled the Angel. Or was it God (Gen 32:30)?

{***SPOILER ALERT***}

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend to close her eyes and not look? While they kept their eyes closed, everyone else melted in the LORD’s presence like statues at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. How did he know anyone who looked at God would die? My favorite line in the movie: “Didn’t you boys go to Sunday School?” {End Spoiler}

Indiana Jones and his girlfriend don't look
No matter what happens, don’t look!

Finally, we should notice that she gives God a name. I can’t think of anyone else in the Bible who both saw God and gave God a name. Jacob asked for God’s name, but the Angel would not give it to him (Gen 32:29). God’s name to the Jews was (and still is) too holy to speak, so this is remarkable. NRSV notes say El-roi means “God of seeing” or “God who sees.” Some translations say “the God who sees me” (see Translation Notes below, if you’re into dissecting Hebrew and Greek).

For Hagar, her reason for the name is that she “has seen God and remained alive.” That stresses her seeing God, so by that reckoning, we might translate it “the God who appeared to me.” In context, either meaning would fit. God has both “seen her” and “appeared to her,” and she lives. This is a God who subverts common expectations.

I like “God who sees (me),” because it pairs well with her son’s name, “God hears.” Putting seeing and hearing together also echoes what God said to Moses when God sent him to deliver the people of Israel:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed (or seen) the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”

(Exo 3:7-8a NRS)

God saw Hagar and heard her. God knew her sufferings and gave an answer to her cry.

Then the author tells us the name of the well where she saw God still bears the name of this encounter.

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

(Gen 16:14 NRS)

NRSV study notes say Beer-lahai-roi means “the well of the Living One who sees me.” Beer is not beer like we think of. It is the Hebrew word for well (sorry). The Living One was sometimes used to refer to God. In an earlier post, I discussed the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son and name him Isaac. A little side note here: After Abraham dies, Isaac lives in Beer-lahai-roi for a time (Gen 25:11). Did he know the history it represented for Hagar and Ishmael?


There are still probably two big questions on your mind right now.

  1. Why did God tell Hagar, Return to your mistress and submit to her?
  2. Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse? This story is a perfect illustration of why it is so important to read the Bible in its original context.

Why Did God Tell Hagar to Return to Her Mistress and Submit to Her?

Think about Hagar’s situation here. When the Angel asks her, Where are you coming from and where are you going, she has an answer for the first question (I am running away from my mistress) but not the second. This was obviously an impulsive decision. She had no plan for how to escape beyond running away. What are her options?

  • A. Try to survive alone in the wilderness while pregnant. And when the baby comes, give birth with no one to help her. Then try to figure a way to provide the needs of her and her baby out in a hot dry place with no food and no shelter, and predatory animals who would love to make a meal of them, if she has survived that long.
  • B. Return to her mistress and submit to her.

This was not a blanket approval of slavery. All the Angel is telling her is B is preferable to A. There, the basic needs for her and her baby—food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety from wild animals—will be met. If she is submissive toward Sarai, she will most likely be less harsh with her. This is a survival strategy, one which slaves throughout history adopted. But God/the Angel gives her a reason to survive. God has a destiny and a promise for the son she is carrying.

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. The same promise God gave to Abram’s seed, which he is, a son of Abram’s own issue. God gives him a name, and I talked in an earlier post about the significance of God naming someone.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael in Hebrew comes from shema`, meaning “hear,” and ‘El, meaning “God.” So the name means, “God hears.” If she ever needs to be reminded that God hears her in her affliction, it’s right there in her son’s name.

Now we come to verse 12 and the second question from above.

Was Verse 12 a Blessing or a Curse?

To review, verse 12 says, “He 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.”

Ladies, how would you feel if God appeared to you while you were pregnant to tell you this? Would you wonder why God was punishing you? Before you judge, remember Hagar’s circumstances were very different from yours. How would she have heard this?

He shall be a wild ass of a man. He will be strong, independent, and able to survive in harsh conditions.

…with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. He will bow down to no master. He will enjoy the freedom and autonomy she longs for.

…and he shall live at odds with all his kin. She might not like the idea of him being at odds with her, but who else are his kin? Abram. Sarai by law, though not by blood. Anyone related to Abram. She knows they will not fully accept him, so why shouldn’t his hand be against them?

Legally, he will belong to Sarai. But Hagar will always be his mother by blood. He will feel that tension along with her, and it will come back on Abram and Sarai’s heads. He will not be a compliant child like a “good slave” should. She will be there to teach him the destiny God has for him, and that destiny is freedom from anyone who would make him a slave. What better justice could she ask for?

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum

I can picture the scene. Ishmael is a toddler. Hagar is playing Pattycake—or whatever games they played with little children back then. Sarai comes in and says, “I’ll take him now.” Ishmael lifts up his arms, and she picks him up. Abram tousles his hair affectionately. Sarai carries him out, saying, “What a sweet boy.”

And all the while, Hagar is thinking, “So, my master and mistress, you think he is the answer to your prayers. No, he is the answer to my prayers. You think he is sweet now? Just wait until he grows up,” and she laughs. “Just you wait.”


Do you see now what a difference reading in context makes? To our modern ears, the Angel’s words sound like a curse. But for a slave-girl like Hagar, in the land of Canaan somewhere around 2000 BC, these words were life.

The Angel gave her a strategy for survival—submit to her mistress. That would not be easy for her, but it would ensure both her survival and her son’s. And the Angel gave a promise worth living for—her son would be a free man. For the sake of that promise, she accepted slavery for herself.

Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11 “because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS). So did Hagar, which again tells me she should have been included in the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

Translation Notes (for Bible Geeks Like Me)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13 NRS)

The translation of El-roi is uncertain in the Hebrew. WTM (The standard Hebrew text) includes a note that says ro’i is a noun (Masculine Singular Absolute) and can mean “appearance” or “appearing.” This might give the translation, “God who appears to me.” When Hagar comments she saw God and lived, that would point to God appearing to her rather than seeing her.

BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) says it generally means “looking, seeing, or sight.” It translates the name as “God who sees,” which would be appropriate, because God sees Hagar’s affliction.

However, KJV, NAS, and NIV translate it as “the God who sees me.” The entry for Job 7:8, same word and form, says it is a Verb, Qal Participle (Masculine Singular Construct), with a 1st person suffix, which would affirm that translation. It is also how the LXX (Septuagint) translates it.

 ὁ θεὸς ὁ ἐπιδών με  (Gen 16:13 BGT); ho theos ho epidon me.

ἐπιδών verb (participle aorist active nominative masculine singular) from ἐφοράω fix one’s glance upon, look at, concern oneself (with) Lk 1:25; Ac 4:29.* [pg 71]

The Septuagint adds the personal pronoun me, which shows they understood El-roi to mean “the God who looks at me,” or “the God who sees me.” We see another example in Job 7:8.

The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.

(Job 7:8 ESV).

Ro’i is translated him who sees me. So it appears we have either “God who appears to me,” or “God who sees me.” The verb could also be Past tense rather than present, so it could also mean “God who appeared to me,” or “God who saw me.”

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

In last week’s post, I talked about how God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The difference between Abram and Abraham is subtle but meaningful. However, I commented that the difference between Sarai and Sarah was not readily apparent. Both mean “princess” or “queen.” One possible explanation comes from Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a professor of the Hebrew Bible, who says “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.” If he is correct, Sarai would mean “my princess,” or perhaps “my queen.” Sarah would mean simply “princess” or “queen.” Like the change from Abram to Abraham, a subtle but significant difference, one that marked a change in the trajectory of both their lives.

When I’m analyzing characters or stories, I don’t necessarily go in chronological order. Last week we were in chapter 17 of Genesis. This week we will look at chapter 16. With the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in its third season on Hulu, I thought this would be an interesting scene for many people.

Genesis Chapter 16

Now, we are going back to a time when they were still called Abram and Sarai. In chapter 15, God promised to give Abram a son “of his own issue,” and to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. Chapter 16 picks up about ten years later. Abram and Sarai have been trying to have a child, and they are no spring chickens. Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66 when God first made that promise. Sarai never had a child of her own, even when she was young. Now they are 85 and 76, respectively. Sarai is afraid if Abram is limited to her, he will never have a son of his own issue, no matter what God said. To borrow a phrase from Atwood, no matter how many times she said, “Blessed be the fruit,” the LORD was not opening. So she approached her husband.

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store.
A scene from the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

(Gen 16:1- 2 NRS)

Hagar is Sarai’s slave-girl, also called a handmaid. In Abram and Sarai’s culture, this seems to have been an accepted practice. If a man’s wife was unable to conceive, the man could obtain children through his wife’s slave (presumably, if the wife permitted it). But as we already know, Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body or the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. So he told Sarai, “Just calm down now. God promised us a child, and God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises. We don’t need a plan B.” You know I’m kidding, right?

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

(Gen 16:3 NRS)

…and [Sarai] gave her to her husband Abram as a wife? I doubt that “wife” is a good translation here, because clearly in the rest of the story, Sarai was Abram’s one and only wife. She would not have let Hagar forget that. Perhaps “concubine” is more accurate.

Here is the mistake God made when God spoke to Abram in chapter 15. God told Abram he would have a son “of his own issue,” but God did not specify it would be through Sarai (15:4).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

(16:4-5)

Okay, if I’m Abram, at this point, my first thought is, “Oh, it’s all my fault? And whose idea was this in the first place?” And how she describes the wrong done to me, when you look at it in the Hebrew, reveals a lot about her.

The Hebrew word for “wrong” here is chamas. It is occasionally translated “wrong” in a general sense. But more often, it means specifically “violence.” For example, Jeremiah says this to Babylon after they conquered Jerusalem: “’May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,’ The inhabitant of Zion will say” (Jer 51:35 NAS).

One of the authors of the Psalms says this, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends” (Psa 7:16 NRS).

One of Gideon’s sons killed all seventy of his siblings, with the help of the men of Shechem, to make himself his father’s heir. But later, the men of Shechem “dealt treacherously with Abimelech…so that the violence done to the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) might be avenged” (Jud 9:23-24).

The word for “violence” in all these passages is chamas. Sarai equated the wrong Hagar was doing to her with mass murder.

May the LORD judge between you and me.

People only used this expression when they were 100% sure that the wrong, or the violence, done to them had no cause or justification. The responsibility of the other party was so obvious, they knew God was on their side (cf. 1 Sa 24:12, 15; Exo 5:21; Jud 11:27).

If you invoke God to judge between you and another, you’d better be right, because God will judge justly and with no partiality. I don’t buy for one second that Sarai did nothing to provoke Hagar in this. And Abram bears some responsibility, but certainly not all of it, as she claims. Hagar may have done wrong to her, but Sarai is blowing it way out of proportion, just like many wealthy and privileged women do. And she is not even considering the wrong she did to Hagar.

Abram gives her the same advice a wealthy slaveowner would give.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

(Gen 16:6)

“Sarai, dear, did you forget who is the master and who is the slave? You don’t have to take it from her if you don’t want to.”

And Sarai is like, “Oh yeah. Time to remind her who the queen of this household really is.” She strikes back at Hagar, and Hagar runs away.

What Are We To Think of Hagar?

When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress? Because she’s just a “B-word, rhymes with witch”? That is a question you really have to think about if you intend to turn this episode into a fictionalized account, especially if you want it to be as good as Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. You would have to consider her situation and how that would affect her attitude. You would have to flesh out just how she showed contempt for her mistress in what she said and did. And then you would have to flesh out what Sarai did when she dealt harshly with her. Whatever it was, it would have to be bad enough to make her run away, while pregnant, with nothing but desert around her.

Let’s start with that question, “Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress?” You could go with the B-word explanation, but that would ignore critical details about Hagar’s situation. She is a slave. She has already experienced the dehumanization of being sold or given to Abram and Sarai like a piece of chattel and taken from her home in Egypt (Gen 12:16-13:2). Then she is told her master will come in and lie with her, because her mistress decided that for her. Did they ask her if she would help with their fertility problems? She might have been willing if they had asked, and she saw how desperate they were to have a child.

Today, some women are willing to be surrogates for infertile couples. They negotiate the terms of conception (usually in-vitro, but that was not an option then) and what kind of care or compensation they receive. Hagar never had that chance. You didn’t negotiate with your slaves. You ordered them. “My husband needs to have a son. The LORD has withheld me from having children, so you’re going to do it in my place.” That was the negotiation.

Abram and Sarai saw nothing wrong with this. Your slave-girl is in your power. You can do with her as you please (Gen 16:6). They expected Hagar to accept this, because that was the way it was in their world. Many other slaves had to do the same, and they accepted it. It probably never even occurred to them she might have feelings about this. The most intimate decisions regarding her own body were taken from her, and something in her knew it was wrong. She would not accept the status of being property and not human. Like most slaves, she obeyed out of self-preservation.

The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer's character Janine, caption reads: Your body is no longer your own.

But when she conceived, that gave her a leg up on Sarai. She finally had a chance to let out the resentment she had kept inside, because, Don’t upset her. You don’t want to hurt the baby she’s carrying. Her resentment was not just at Sarai and Abram. It was at the whole system that did not recognize her rights as a woman or as a human being. Let’s not sugarcoat it. What was done to her was legitimized rape. Should we be surprised she showed contempt for her mistress?

And yes, it was no different for her than for countless other slaves. You could legally do anything to your slave you wished. They did not recognize at that time that slaves were human, made in the image of God, and as such had certain inalienable rights. Hagar was one of those independent souls who, over time, forced us to come to terms with an entire institution whose purpose was to dehumanize others. If you ask me, she should have been on that list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Serena and June Anyone?

If you’re familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably think this saga between Sarai and Hagar sounds like the relationship between Serena and June. June went along with the system in Gilead she was forced into, but she resented it. She resented the system that took away her husband, took her daughter away, made her the handmaid of Serena and Fred Waterford, and in every way possible told her that her only value was her ability to receive Mr. Waterford’s seed, get pregnant, and bear a child for Mrs. Waterford. The child she was forced to conceive would not even be hers. It belonged to Fred and Serena. It was primarily for Serena’s benefit, because she could not have children of her own. June’s family, career, autonomy, and even her name were taken from her, so a wealthy, powerful, childless family could use her womb, and she had no say in it.

There are a few moments of connection between her and Serena, but Serena is mostly harsh with her. She’s a little jealous that June can give her husband something she can’t and takes that frustration out on her. June engages in little acts of defiance, quietly, and mostly behind their backs, but gradually she becomes bolder with it, especially after she conceives. She milks the concern for the baby for all its worth. And she aims some insults right at Serena’s greatest insecurities.

In her introduction to the novel, Atwood does not name this particular scene but rather the episode where Rachel gives her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob, so she can have children (Genesis 30:1-8). But as I described the characters of Serena and June, don’t they sound just like Sarai and Hagar? I’m not knocking Atwood for lifting these characters from the pages of the Bible. On the contrary, I think what she did is a fantastic example of the potential of Biblical Fiction for creating compelling drama.

Biblical Fiction Vs. Christian Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale is not Christian Fiction, in case you were wondering. There’s too much sex, cursing, and graphic violence for it to be Christian Fiction. Biblical Fiction, you have to understand, is not the same as Christian Fiction. Christian Fiction has strict rules about what kind of worldview and morality your characters can present and endorse. Characters can be morally ambiguous at first, but in Christian Fiction, they usually convert to a Christian worldview and morality by the end. But hopefully, you see in this Biblical text all of the characters are morally ambiguous, and there is no “conversion” for any of them. Therefore, I say Biblical Fiction does not have to follow the same rules as Christian Fiction, because the Bible doesn’t.

Atwood lifted these characters from the Bible and placed them in a modern dystopian setting with new names. She did not take the Christian approach of turning Abraham and Sarah into heroes and Hagar into a villain. She kept all of their moral ambiguities intact. That is why Atwood’s story works so well. Her approach not only makes the characters more believable and human. It is a more faithful rendering of the Biblical text than the rules of Christian Fiction would allow. It highlights how unjust and dehumanizing the society of Gilead is. June acts like a fiercely independent handmaid would in a society like Gilead, and so does Hagar. The Waterfords act like members of a privileged class who want a child would act, and so do Abram and Sarai.

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Remember Hagar ran away to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment? What happened to her? The saga continues in the next part of this character study. If you are interested in buying a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can follow my affiliate link here. My “Recommended” page has links to this and other excellent examples of Biblical Fiction.

Handmaid's Tale meme: Grocery store, Blessed be the fruit. May the Lord open.

Character Study—Abraham’s Covenant, Part 2, Blessing or Curse?

Continuing my character study of Abraham, I’m picking up in Genesis, chapter 17. Back in Chapter 15, God made a covenant where God promised to give Abraham a son “of his own issue,” that he would be great, his name would be great, his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, and God would give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. God appears to Abraham again in chapter 17.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”

(Gen 17:1-2 NRS)
map of near east in time of patriarchs

The last time the LORD appeared to Abram, he was 75 years old. Now, he is 99. There has been an interesting development in between. He has had a son of his own issue, as God promised, but not by his wife. Ten years after that covenant and promise, Sarai still had borne no children. She told Abram to go in to her handmaid, Hagar, saying, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her” (16:2). He did, and she did.

Hagar had a son named Ishmael. The slave girl gave Abram a son, but his own wife could not. That led to the slave girl lording over her mistress. If you think this sounds like The Handmaid’s Tale, you’re right. Margaret Atwood got that story from stories like this in the Bible. Yes, I used the plural, “stories.” There are more. But right now, what concerns us is Abram and Sarai, because they still have not had a child together. And it looks like that ship has sailed, because they may have had an active sex life into their eighties, but it is over now (Gen 18:11-12). Sarah has passed menopause. So what is God doing, appearing to Abram again, after twenty-four years, and talking about making Abram exceedingly numerous?

Another thing. Why is God saying I will make my covenant between me and you? God already made a covenant, with the promise of numerous descendants, in chapter 15. This is one of those moments that make some scholars think there were two traditions about the origins of God’s covenant with Abraham. You can make an argument for it, but you can also make an argument that the rivalry between Sarai and Hagar required God to appear again and clarify exactly what God meant. He was supposed to have a child with Sarai. But if Abram is ninety-nine years old, that makes Sarai ninety. And God is going to talk now about them having a son together? Sounds like God should have clarified this sooner.

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

“I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.”

 (Gen 17:3-8 NRS)

Again, God promises Abram he will have many descendants, so many that he will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God promises again to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. And his descendants will inherit the promises of this covenant. Sounds very similar to what God promised in chapter 15, but there’s more this time.

I will make you exceedingly fruitful. This is going to be very important if he expects Abram to have a son at ninety-nine years of age.

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. This is why we call him Abraham, not Abram. God either giving a name or changing a name is a motif we see a few times in the Bible. A person’s name had great significance in the ancient world. So for God to give someone a new name was almost like being born again.

When God gives someone a name, whether it’s a newborn baby, a man, or woman, the name has meaning. It says something significant about the essence of their identity. Abram meant “exalted father.” That could be a good name for a man who needed to bear sons. But that had not been good enough. People must have started thinking of it as an honorary name, not literally. With Abraham, God takes the promise of fatherhood up a notch, “Father of a multitude.”

Abram must have thought, “Abram can’t have children. Abram is ninety-nine. Abram’s body is as good as dead as far as being able to procreate.”

This was like God saying, “Forget about Abram. I have made you Abraham, “father of a multitude.” That is what you will be called from now on.”

“So you’re promising I will be the ‘Father of a Multitude’? How are you going to do that?”

“The same way I created the heavens and the earth. By speaking it.”

God is making the same promises to Abraham as in Chapter 15. But this time, God is doubling down on it. God gave him a new name, a name that says he will be exceedingly fruitful, the father of a multitude of nations. From now on, anytime someone says, “Father of a Multitude,” Abraham will say, “Yes?” So far, he does not seem to be weakening in faith (as Paul said, Rom 4:19).

What Do You Mean by Circumcised?

I really wonder how Abraham reacted to what God said next. God tells him to put the mark of this covenant in his own body.

God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.

“Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

(Gen 17:9-14 NRS)

“Are you serious, God? Can’t we split some animals in half like last time?” I doubt he was enthusiastic about this, but he obeyed. It’s interesting that the part of Abraham’s body that was “as good as dead” is exactly where God tells him to cut the mark of this covenant. But this might have given Abraham the psychological boost he needed to believe that what was dead could come back to life.

So God has made a promise to overcome Abraham’s physical limitations. But if God wants Abraham to have a child by his barren, ninety-year-old wife, he’d better address Sarai’s physical limitations as well.

Sarai’s Turn

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

(Gen 17:15-16 NRS)

Just like with Abraham, God gives Sarai a new name. That is why we call her Sarah today. Sarai meant “Princess,” and so did Sarah, according to my study notes. It appears there was no difference in meaning, but I think there must have been a subtle difference that got lost in translation. And I think whatever the difference was, somehow it addressed her infertility.

Last time, God told him he would have a son by “his own issue” but did not say how or by who. He had a son, Ishmael, by his wife’s slave, Hagar. Until now, whatever hope he had for his descendants appeared to be tied to Ishmael. Abraham even says, “Oh that Ishmael might live in your sight” (v. 18). For whatever reason, Ishmael does not seem to be living up to the expectations of being the son of a man in covenant with God.

This time God gets specific. The heirs to Abraham’s covenant are not just Abraham’s issue. They are of Abraham’s issue and Sarah’s womb. Let’s see if Abraham is this paragon of indomitable belief as Paul’s told us.

He Laughs

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

 (Gen 17:17 NRS)

Okay, that doesn’t sound like he “did not weaken in faith.” He reacted the same way we would have. “God, you have got to be kidding.” They were not only infertile. They weren’t even having sex anymore (Gen 18:12). How are they supposed to have a child? But God tells Abraham this is real.

God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

(Gen 17:19 NRS)

I can never read this without thinking about my grandparents, so I’m going off on a personal tangent now.

Off on a Tangent

My grandparents both died at 93. The last several years, my grandfather had dementia. When you walked in to see him, you never knew what you were walking into. He had about 10 different soap operas running in his head, and you didn’t know which one you were in at the moment. One time, he said to my mother, “This woman told me she’s pregnant, and I’m the father.”

She’s like, Oh Lord, what am I supposed to do with this? “Well, you know, this is bad.”

“I know!”

“Rosa (my grandmother) is gonna be really mad.”

“I know!”

This is not real, of course. But you couldn’t tell him that. So my mother says, “Daddy, how old are you?”

“Eighty-nine.”

“Do you think this woman is pulling your leg?”

(Gasp!) “I never thought of that.”

He was eighty-nine, and the idea that he could have impregnated a woman was utterly ridiculous. The idea that he could have impregnated his eighty-nine year old wife was utterly ridiculous. The idea that she could have become pregnant at eighty-nine by any man was utterly ridiculous. And even if they could, that doesn’t mean they should. If he had got her pregnant, that would not have been a blessing. That would have been a curse.

Back to the Text

I really want to go in here now and tell God to stop. Just because you can make Abraham and Sarah parents at this insane age doesn’t mean you should. But Abraham and Sarah were okay with it. In this case, their opinions count more than mine. But I wouldn’t blame Abraham if he was thinking, “Okay, you keep making this promise of a son and many descendants. I have one son, but you still want me to have another? With Sarah? I’m ninety-nine now. She’s ninety. She’s been through menopause. If this was so important, why didn’t you make it happen sooner? It’s time to put up or shut up.”

God means for Abraham to have a son through his wife, Sarah. He won’t need a surrogate. And God waited until Abraham was ninety-nine and Sarah was ninety to make this absolutely clear. No wonder Abraham laughed. Just as God renamed Abraham and Sarah, God gives a name to their yet unborn son, Isaac. Isaac, by the way, means “he laughs.” This son will remind Abraham that he laughed at God’s promise.

Did He Weaken in Faith?

So was Paul correct when he said this in Romans?

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

 (Rom 4:19-22 NRS)

Paul actually conflated the two episodes of Genesis, chapters 15 and 17, as if they were one. It was in Genesis 15 when Abraham’s faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). His body was not “as good as dead” yet. We know because he had a child by Hagar. Genesis 17 is when he was “as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old).” In chapter 15, he “did not waver concerning the promise of God,” but he was seventy-five, not a hundred. When he was a hundred, he did waver concerning the promise of God (Gen 17:18).

No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. It’s not that he had no doubt. Clearly, he did when you read the accounts in Genesis. But he believed the promise of God, because “he was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” The author of Hebrews says it this way: “… he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11).

He trusted that if God made a promise, God would keep it. That is how he was able to enact God’s promise. He did not believe in his body or his procreative ability. He trusted God would keep his promise. This is what it means when it says his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. It wasn’t about what he believed. It was about who he trusted.

What about the Other Son?

There was a lot of bad blood between Abraham’s wife and his “Baby Momma.” His son so far has been a disappointment. This text doesn’t say exactly how Ishmael behaved, but he wasn’t walking before the Lord (17:18). I suppose it wasn’t easy on him knowing he was his father’s Plan B. Or having two women claiming to be his mother and fighting all the time. God lets Abraham know God won’t abandon his firstborn son.

“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)

God did not punish Ishmael for the sins of his parents. God just had a different destiny for him, a destiny apart from Abraham and Sarah. And this time, God told him who should be the mother for his next son and a specific time for the son to be born, at this season next year

Blessed Be the Fruit

Why was it so important for Abraham and Sarah to have a son? They do not know it yet, but Isaac is going to be the channel through which God brings the messiah into the world, so they’d better get busy. Abraham wastes no time circumcising himself, Ishmael, and every male slave of his household, just as God commanded. I imagine after he healed, the flesh between his legs that was “as good as dead” came back to life.

But the situation between Sarah and Hagar deserves more attention. That will be the next character study. And don’t be surprised if you see similarities with Offred and Serena.

Handmaid's Tale meme: Grocery store, Blessed be the fruit. May the Lord open.
Is that Serena in the background?