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

God as Matchmaker: Isaac and Rebekah

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

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

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

Will Ten Camels Be Enough?

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

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

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

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

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

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

WWAD?

What would Abraham do? Ask the LORD.

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

(Gen 24:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

(Jdg 6:37-38 NRS)

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

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

There Was Rebekah

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

(Gen 24:15 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:16-18 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:19 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:20-24 NRS)

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

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

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

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

A Place to Spend the Night

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

(Gen 24:25 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:26-27 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:28 NRS)

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

And Let Me Introduce You to My Brother, Laban

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

(Gen 24:29-30 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:30-32 NRS)

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

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

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

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

I Will Not Eat until I Have Told You My Errand

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

He said, “Speak on.”

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

 (Gen 24:33-36 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

Telephoning

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

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

(Gen 24:39-41 NRS)

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

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

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

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

The Thing Comes from the LORD

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

(Gen 24:50-51 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:52-53 NRS)

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

We Will Call the Girl and Ask Her

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

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

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

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

(Gen 24:54-57 NRS)

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

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

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

She said, “I will.”

(Gen 24:58 NRS)

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

What Made Rebekah Agree to This?

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

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

Who Are All These Camels For?

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

(Gen 24:59 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:60 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:61 NRS)

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

Isaac Meets His Bride

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

(Gen 24:62-63 NRS)

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

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

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

The servant said, “It is my master.”

So she took her veil and covered herself.

(Gen 24:64-65 NRS)

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

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

(Gen 24:66 NRS)

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

He Brought Her into His Mother’s Tent

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

(Gen 24:67 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

For Writers: Self-Editing

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

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

And then we have this.

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

(Gen 24:64-65a NRS)

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

Translation Notes

It’s Charan, not Haran.

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

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

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

כִּי־עָשִׂ֥יתָ חֶ֖סֶד  (Gen 24:14 WTT)

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

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

Hol2710  חֶסֶד  noun common masculine singular absolute homonym 2

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

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

A Half-Shekel … Ten Shekels

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

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

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

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

חַסְדּ֛וֹ וַאֲמִתּ֖וֹ (Gen 24:27 WTT)

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

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

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

References

Seal of king Ur-Nammu museum page

Haran (Biblical place), Wikipedia

Haran and Family Tree of Terah, Abraham’s Father

Shekel. Measurements Converter.”

Lot’s Daughters—Sodom and Gomorrah, Part 4

***Advisory: This post touches on topics of incest, child sacrifice, and prostitution. You’ve been warned***

In the previous scene, two angels told Lot he and his family needed to run to the hills for safety, because they were about to destroy all the cities of the Plain. Zoar (previously called Bela), however, was spared because Lot asked if he could go there instead of the hills. Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot is left now with only his two daughters. We pick up the story from there.

Now Lot went up out of Zoar and settled in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar; so he lived in a cave with his two daughters.

(Gen 19:30 NRS)

He settled in the hills… and lived in a cave. That’s what he was trying to avoid earlier (vv. 19-22). I got the feeling earlier Lot did not want to go back to non-urban living. I imagine his daughters were not thrilled about it either. But he was afraid to stay in Zoar. The people there must have been as bad as Sodom. Now they are living in a cave with no one else around.

Not If You Were the Last Man on Earth!

And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

(Gen 19:31-32 NRS)

I hardly know what to say now. Why does the firstborn daughter propose this to the younger? She says, “There is not a man on earth to come in to us….” Some commentators say this shows how important the command to “be fruitful and multiply” was. It was so important to people in the ancient world to procreate and pass on their name to the next generation, more so than today. Everyone was expected to bear children unless they physically couldn’t. They had to be sure their family would survive after their deaths, even if it meant they had to sleep with their father. All of that is true. But was fooling their father into making them pregnant the only option?

They say there is not a man on earth. True, they had witnessed widespread devastation upon the whole plain of the Jordan. Did they really think this was the whole earth? Even if it was, Zoar survived. Were there no men in Zoar? If not, why was Lot afraid to stay there? Of course there were men in Zoar. Lot moved them out of the city, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t sneak off, hang around and pretend to be prostitutes like Tamar (Gen 38:13-26).

Why didn’t they share their concerns with their father? Could it be they did not trust their father after he almost threw them to the wolves (v. 8)? That would be understandable. But they never voice any such concerns when they hatch this plan. Compare that to the detail about Tamar’s motivations to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her, because he would not honor his obligations of Levirate marriage to her (Gen 38). And even with that consideration, their only concern appears to be to preserve offspring, even if it has to be through our father.

There are no other men living in their cave, but that cave is not the whole earth. At this point, I am tempted to joke that they must have been teenagers, because they think anything outside the world they know doesn’t exist. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

What if they were correct? Women sometimes say of a certain man they would not date him if he were “the last man on earth.” What if Lot really was the last man on earth? And they were the last women on earth? If he dies without impregnating them, the whole human race dies with them. And they felt pressured to do it quickly, because our father is now old. In that case, their plan probably would be justified. But they are not the last people on earth, are they?

The Daughters’ March to Folly

In her book, The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, Barbara W. Tuchman analyzes some of the greatest acts of folly nations have committed in history. She defines folly as having three characteristics:

  1. The leader/nation pursued a course of action clearly against their self-interests.
  2. The actions prompted warnings from wise people, but they were ignored.
  3. A clear and reasonable alternative existed.

Was this clearly against their self-interest? Yes, but if they were stupid enough to believe their father was the last man on earth, they probably never thought that far ahead. Did they ignore warnings against it? No one could warn them, because they did not share their plans with anyone. Even so, I believe they still had a warning. I believe (this is just me) they must have had a still small voice inside them saying, “You don’t have to do this. The world is a big place. Find another man.” Did a clear and reasonable alternative exist? YES! In fact, several alternatives existed.

For one thing, they could have shared their concerns with their father, as I said before. I don’t mean, “Father, there is no man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the world. Will you do it, so we can have children?” They could have eased into it, like, “It looks like we are the last people on earth. Are we?” Maybe they didn’t know the destruction was targeted against specific cities, not the whole earth, but Lot did. So he could have told them, “No, we are not the last people on earth.”

“But where is a man who can produce offspring for us?”

He could have told them, “There are men beyond Zoar and beyond these hills. In fact, Uncle Abraham and Aunt Sarah are out there in Canaan. They will certainly be able to find husbands for you.”

They could have found men in Zoar, as I said before. If Lot forbade them, they could have got him drunk (first part of the plan). Then instead of sleeping with him, they could have gone back to Zoar for a night and snuck back before he was the wiser. Even that would have made more sense than what they planned. They could have asked to go to Haran, where Uncle Nahor still lived, or to find Uncle Abraham. Either of their great-uncles could have found men suitable as fathers and husbands.

But for some reason, they think the only option to “be fruitful and multiply” is to use wine as a “date rape drug” on their father. In spite of clear and reasonable alternatives, they went through with their folly.

So they made their father drink wine that night; and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; he did not know when she lay down or when she rose.

On the next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Look, I lay last night with my father; let us make him drink wine tonight also; then you go in and lie with him, so that we may preserve offspring through our father.”

So they made their father drink wine that night also; and the younger rose, and lay with him; and he did not know when she lay down or when she rose. Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.

(Gen 19:33-36 NRS)

I wonder what they told their father when he saw they were pregnant. Next, we get to the point of this story.

An Origin Story of Two Rival Nations

The firstborn bore a son, and named him Moab; he is the ancestor of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and named him Ben-ammi; he is the ancestor of the Ammonites to this day.

(Gen 19:37-38 NRS)

This begs the question, what kind of children will come from a union like this? Their names even hinted of ignoble origins. Moab means “from the father,” or perhaps even “from her father.” Whose father? Oh yeah. And it echoes the phrase “through our father” in verses 32 and 34 (Moabinu). Ben-ammi means “Son of my people.” ‘Ammi can refer specifically to a father’s relatives or one’s particular tribe, so it is often associated with close family ties. Only one man there is of her people. What happened when Lot heard the names, remembered the nights they got him drunk, and put two and two together? (AWKWARD!)

So this is an origin story of the Moabites and Ammonites. Moab and Ammon were two ancient enemies of Israel. This story portrays them as being founded in folly and sexual licentiousness, and that was in line with stereotypes the Israelites had of their neighbors east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

Don’t Know Much about Moabites

The territory of Moab lay east of the Dead Sea. The capital was Dibon. The Israelites encountered them during their forty years wandering in the wilderness (Numbers 22-25). Balak son of Zippor was king at the time. To sum up, Balak and the people were afraid of the Israelites, so Balak hired the prophet Balaam to curse them. That backfired. The LORD spoke through him, and the curse turned into a blessing. When Balak was like, “I paid you to curse them, not bless them,” Balaam said, “Must I not take care to say what the LORD puts into my mouth?” (Num 23:12 NRS).

When that didn’t work, they sent their women to seduce them. The Israelite men slept with the women and bowed down to their gods. They yoked themselves to their chief god, Baal of Peor (Num 25:3). Yes, this is after they received the Ten Commandments, and God almost wiped them out when they built a golden calf to be their god. This is what Moses told them after that incident.

You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to their gods, someone among them will invite you, and you will eat of the sacrifice.

(Exo 34:15 NRS)

Yet for all this, they broke the first commandment again in a big way. They did all of that with the women of Moab, most likely the cult prostitutes of Baal of Peor. Not only that, when Moses told them to stop, they refused.

God sent a plague that started killing the Israelites. As it spread, the people came to the tent of meeting to repent before the LORD. But one man, Zimri son of Salu, flaunted God and his people by taking his woman into his tent right in front of everyone. Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, took it upon himself to stop the plague. He charged into the tent with his spear and killed them both in the same stroke. (So they were having sex right at that moment.) That is when the plague stopped. Once again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

This became a cautionary tale for every generation of Israelites and Jews. What kind of opinion do you think they had of the Moabites? They were treacherous, idolatrous, and sexually amoral. If anyone asked why they were that way, just look at their origin story. They are the product of incest between father and daughter, so what do you expect?

Don’t Know Much about Ammonites

The territory of Ammon was east of the Jordan River, between the valleys of Arnon and Jabbok, in the modern nation of Jordan. They once occupied the fertile eastern banks of the Jordan River, along with the Moabites, but Sihon king of the Amorites drove them out. Perhaps their greatest infamy was that they introduced their god Milcom, a.k.a. Molech, to the Israelites. His image showed the face of a bull and arms outstretched to receive babies for sacrifice. And like their god, the Ammonites themselves were cruel (1 Sam 11:1-2; Amo 1:13). Again, Game of Thrones has got nothing on the Bible.

"The idol Moloch with seven chambers or chapels"), from Johann Lund's Die Alten Jüdischen Heiligthümer (1711, 1738).
You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:21 NRS)

So when the young generation asked what kind of people would do this, they could remind them of the origin story. The Ammonites, like the Moabites, were the product of incest between father and daughter. Whether or not the story of Lot and his daughters was true or another urban legend, I don’t know. But it was the kind of story they would tell young people to warn them not to intermarry with the Ammonites and Moabites, because they would entice them to bind them to their gods (Exo 34:16; Deu 7:3-4; Jos 23:12-13). The distrust of the Moabites and Ammonites was so great Moses forbade them from joining “the assembly of the LORD” for ten generations (Deu 23:3-4).

The LORD forbade the Israelites from sacrificing children to Molech or to any gods, including himself. That was supposed to be one of the lessons of when Abraham offered Isaac to the LORD. The angel stopped him, saying,

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

(Gen 22:12 NRS)

They would use this story to teach their young ones, “This is why we don’t sacrifice our children like people of other nations do.” But there is evidence from the Hebrew Bible they did it anyway (Lev 18:21; 20:2-3; Deu 12:31; Jdg 11:30-31; 1 Kg 11:7, 33). In fact, even the valley of Hinnom outside of Jerusalem had a shrine to Molech.

Blood Is (Still) Thicker Than Water

But in spite of all this, Moses told the Israelites not to harass or make war with Moab or Ammon, because God said, “I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot” (Deu 2:9; also v. 19 NRS). The Bible does not tell us how and when God made this promise to Moab and Ammon. Why would God do this? God blessed Ishmael and Esau because they were descendants of Abraham. Lot was not Abraham’s descendant, but he was kin by blood.

It’s never stated outright, but God seemed to have a stake in protecting anyone belonging to Abraham’s family. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac, but God also provided land for the descendants of Moab, Ammon, Esau (Deu 2:5), and Ishmael (Gen 17:20), despite their inhospitable treatment of the Israelites (Num 20:18; Deu 23:4).

This is an example of the grace of God. One definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” We saw how God strong-armed Abimelech in order to protect Abraham and Sarah, even though their behavior was unworthy of a prophet and his wife. Unmerited favor. God granted favor to Ishmael, Moab, Ammon, and Esau, even though they were not worthy.

I said in an earlier post called The Meaning of the Wife-Sister Episodes, “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.”

For God to tell Israel certain land did not belong to them because God promised it to someone else is in keeping with a God who keeps promises. And it is also in keeping with protecting the bloodline of the Messiah. Even though they were not Abraham’s seed, Moab would one day become part of the bloodline through Ruth (see below). This has led some Jewish commentators to portray Lot’s daughters in a much more positive fashion. On verse 32, Genesis Rabbah 51:8 says:

R. Tanhuma in the name of Samuel: “What is written is not, ‘So that we may keep a child alive from our father,’ but rather, ‘so we may preserve offspring through our father.’ That is to say, the king-messiah, who will come from another source.”

Sometimes in reading these Rabbinic commentaries, I feel a little stupid. I don’t see the difference between “So that we may keep a child alive from our father” and “So we may preserve offspring through our father,” but an article on The Torah website explained it this way:

According to this understanding, the daughters may not believe that they are part of the only family left on earth, but intuit that it is essential that Lot’s line continues, since the king-messiah is destined to come from this line.

Lot and His Daughters’ Motives for their Incestuous Union

Wow! I did not see that coming. Talk about things getting lost in translation. If they somehow intuited Lot’s line had to continue for the Messiah to be born, that would mean they were not just a couple of silly teenagers who showed extremely poor judgment. They were prophets who knew this unseemly act really was necessary. And (if the Rabbis are correct), it changes everything I said about their folly earlier.

Was it against their self-interest? Yes, but they understood the sacrifice they were making so that the Messiah could come into the world. Were there any warnings against it? No. When that still small voice spoke to them and said, “You can find another man,” they would have answered, “The Messiah has to come through our father. Now that Mother is gone, we are his last chance.” Did a reasonable alternative exist? If the issue was not just whether they would have children but whether all the pieces of the Messiah’s lineage would be in place, then no. And there is even evidence in the Hebrew text that Lot might have taken them away from Zoar to isolate them in a cave, so that the daughters would have no other alternative (Genesis Rabbah 51:8-9).

Jan Matsys's portrayal of Lot with his Daughters
“On the basis of what is said in the following verse: ‘He who separates himself seeks desire’ (Prov. 18:1), it is clear that Lot lusted after his daughter” (Genesis Rabbah 51:9).

Considering how conservative the Rabbis were about sex, I’m surprised they take such a positive view of Lot’s daughters. But one thing is clear. The Rabbis recognize that through Moab, Lot became a branch in the family tree of the Messiah, and they judge Lot’s daughters through that lens. It was because of Ruth that her ancestor, Moab, had to be born, so let’s see how she becomes part of the most important lineage in the Bible.

Forbidden Fruit Is Sometimes a Good Thing

In the time of the judges, an Israelite named Elimelech brought his wife, Naomi, and two sons to Moab to escape a famine (Rut 1:1), which indicates sometimes relations with Moabites and Ammonites were friendly. Ruth, a Moabitess, married one of Elimelech’s sons (despite Moses’ prohibition). When Elimelech and both his sons died, Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, decided to go back to her hometown of Bethlehem, alone. She urged Ruth to go back to her family, because there was no way as a widow she could take care of Ruth. But Ruth wondered who would take care of Naomi, so she insisted on going back with her. Her promise to Naomi has become one of the most famous expressions of loyalty in all of literature.

“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die– there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

(Rut 1:16-17 NRS)

Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Jews call this type of conversion being “born again.” Because first, you are born as part of one people, and the gods of your people become your gods. It was that way in the ancient world, and Jews were no exception. Therefore, most Jews are simply born that way. But what if a Gentile wants to convert to Judaism? That means accepting the Jewish people as his/her own people and the Jewish God as his/her God. Thus, a convert is “born again” as a Jew.

Ruth, in effect, has just been born again to be part of Naomi’s people. It meant leaving her family, her nation, her gods, everything she was familiar with behind, so her mother-in-law would not be alone. That takes guts. When they made it to Bethlehem, they encountered a man named Boaz, who just happened to be related to Ruth’s dead husband. Under the rules of Levirate marriage, if a man dies without a son, his nearest male kin (usually a brother or cousin) must take care of his widow. His choices are

  1. Lie with her and give her a son, so she will have a share in her son’s inheritance.
  2. Marry her, and accept the obligations that come with it.

Ruth asks Boaz for option 2 based on his kinship with Naomi. There is one other man who is closer kin and has the first right of redemption. But Boaz convinces him not to claim it, clearing the way for him to marry Ruth.

So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the LORD made her conceive, and she bore a son.

(Rut 4:13 NRS)

And she bore a son, that was always the most important result of a Levirate marriage. However, since she became his wife, their relationship did not end there. And here’s the surprise ending. She became the great-grandmother of David, thus placing her in the chain of ancestry of the Messiah (Rut 4:17). For her loyalty to Naomi, the women of Bethlehem praised Ruth.

Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.”

(Rut 4:14-15 NRS)

More to you than seven sons is truly remarkable praise for any woman, let alone a Moabitess, in such a patriarchal culture.

The next-of-kin, or “kinsman-redeemer” (see Translation Notes) refers to the son Ruth bore through Boaz, who loved Ruth not just for her outer beauty but recognized her inner beauty in how she cared for Naomi, his relative.

May his name be renowned in Israel! Considering his great-grandson would be King David, no one could deny that blessing came true. But it would not have happened if he had not had the courage to defy convention and marry a foreign woman, a Moabite no less.

Undoubtedly, the character of any Moabite or Ammonite would be suspect to the Jews until proven otherwise. They needed a story like this to show them the danger was not in marrying someone of the wrong ethnicity, race, nationality, or skin color. The danger was in marrying a woman who embodied the morality of Moabite or Ammonite culture. Ruth’s actions showed she was a valorous woman (Pro 31:10ff), no matter who her ancestors were.

References

Who were the Moabites?

Who were the Ammonites?

Who was Moloch/Molech?

Lot and his daughters’ motives for their incestuous union

Lot’s Daughters: Midrash and Aggadah

Wikipedia

If you or your library have a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review, you can read this article: “Ammon, Moab, and Edom: Gods and Kingdoms East of the Jordan.”

Translation Notes



… or when she arose

וּבְק֗וּמָֽהּ׃ (Gen 19:33 WTT; ubiqumah) The dot over the qaph is an editorial mark called a Puncta Extraordinaria. It possibly changes the meaning 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.”




Goel: The kinsman-redeemer.

גֹּאֵ֖ל (Rut 4:14 WTT) (go’el) = “Next-of-kin.”

In form, this is a masculine singular participle of the verb ga’al, meaning “to redeem.” Go’el in the NRSV is translated “next-of-kin,” but in other translations it is rendered “redeemer.” The term was often used in a specialized sense of the obligation of the nearest male kin to redeem a family member from slavery, to buy back family property lost through debt, and—in this case—to deliver a male relative’s widow from childlessness by marrying her and giving her a son. When used in the context of the obligations of the nearest male kin, I believe “kinsman-redeemer” is the best way to translate it.

Hol1362  גָּאַל (ga’al) verb qal participle masculine singular absolute homonym 1

make a claim for a person or thing > reclaim him/it, redeem; — 2. duty of the male relative of s.one who has died leaving a childless widow to deliver her from childlessness by marriage Ru 44•6, the man in question being called go’el, deliverer Ru 220.

-Halladay, p. 53.

Moab = “from (the) father”

The meaning of the name Moab is not certain. The name sounds like the Hebrew phrase “from our father” (‌מֵאָבִינוּ‎‏‎, meavinu) which the daughters used twice (vv. Gen 19:32, Gen 19:34). This account is probably included in the narrative in order to portray the Moabites, who later became enemies of God’s people, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:37, sn 102.

Strong’s Data

04124 מוֹאָב Mow’ab {mo-awb}

Meaning:  Moab = “of his father” n pr m 1) a son of Lot by his eldest daughter 2) the nation descended from the son of Lot n pr loc 3) the land inhabited by the descendants of the son of Lot

Origin:  from a prolonged form of the prepositional prefix m- and 01; from (her [the mother’s]) father; (TWOT – 1155 [emphasis mine]).

Usage:  AV – Moab 166, Moabites 15; 181.

Ben-Ammi = “Son of my people”

cf. Lo-Ammi = “Not my people” (Hos 1:9); `am = “people.”

The name Ben-Ammi means “son of my people.” Like the account of Moab’s birth, this story is probably included in the narrative to portray the Ammonites, another perennial enemy of Israel, in a negative light.

NET Bible, Ref Gen 19:38, sn 103.

Strong’s Data:

01151 בֶּן־עַמִּי Ben-`Ammiy {ben-am-mee’}

Meaning:  Ben-ami = “son of my people” 1) son of Lot, born to his second daughter, progenitor of the Ammonites

`Ammon = “tribal”

A nation believed to have originated from Ben-ammi.

Strong’s Data:

05983 עַמּוֹן `Ammown {am-mone’}

Meaning:  Ammon = “tribal” 1) a people dwelling in Transjordan descended from Lot through Ben-ammi

`am = “people”

6342  עַם

I עַם: sf. עַמִּי; pl. sf. עַמָּיו, עַמֶּיהָ, עַמֶּיךָ: [father’s brother, f.’s relative >] relative: sg. in name, Gn 1938; coll. father’s relatives Je 3712; pl. father’s relatives: Gn 258.

6343  עַם

II עַם: עָֽם, הָעָם; sf. 1. (a whole) people (emphasis on internal ethnic solidarity) Gn 116;…people to whom s.one belongs: benê ±ammim fellow-countrymen Lv 2017;… — 3. oft. not a whole people but a portion: people, inhabitants:…people attached to an individual Gn 328….

(Halladay, pg 275)

Ancient Hospitality–Sodom and Gomorrah, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop, Sodom

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

(Genesis 19:1a)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:1b-3 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:6-8 NRS)

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

Ancient Hospitality

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

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

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

Bedouin Appearance, Customs, and Character

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:9 NRS)

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

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

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

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

(Gen 19:10-11 NRS)

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

But what about homosexuality?

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

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

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

(Gen 19:4-5 NRS)

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

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

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

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

WWJD?

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

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

(Mat 10:14-15 NRS)

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

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

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

Did Abraham miscalculate?

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

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

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

(Gen 19:12-14 NRS)

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

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

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

Translation Notes

האֶחָ֤ד בָּֽא־לָגוּר֙  (Gen 19:9 WTT)

This one came to sojourn…

Hol1494  גּור verb qal infinitive construct homonym 1  

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

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

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 the Pimp?

When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram;…

(Gen 12:14-16a)

So far, everything is happening the way Abram predicted. When Pharaoh heard his officials tell him how beautiful Sarai was, she was taken into Pharaoh’s house. As her “brother,” Pharaoh dealt well with Abram. Just how did he deal well with her “brother”?

…and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

(Gen 12:16b)

Hagar was almost certainly among the female slaves (Gen 16). Where did all this booty come from? Pharaoh wanted to get in good with Sarai’s closest male relative, so he would be favorably disposed to him. If he wants to marry Sarai, he has to go through her brother. What’s going on here? Does Abram really think they will kill him if they find out he is her husband? Or is he using her as a bargaining chip?

This does not sound like it can end well.

Foreshadowing the Exodus

But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.”

And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Gen 12:17-20 NRS)

The great plagues (not specified) are almost certainly meant to foreshadow the plagues that the LORD afflicts Pharaoh and Egypt with when Moses says, “Let my people go.” They set him on the way … with all he had, including all the gifts he had received from Pharaoh (v. 16). This also foreshadows the Egyptians essentially paying the Israelites to leave, because they were so desperate to be rid of them and their plagues.

Next, we find Abraham was a very rich man.

So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold.

(Gen 13:1-2 NRS)

Be Rich Like Abraham?

Some preachers love to talk about how rich Abraham was. They link it to this verse from Galatians.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”– in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

(Gal 3:13-14 NRS)

“See, the blessing of Abraham is yours if you are in Christ Jesus,” they say. “Abraham was rich, so God wants you to be rich. God promised the blessing of Abraham for you.” Two problems with that.

  1. The blessing of Abraham has nothing to do with making you rich. Paul says the blessing of Abraham we receive when we are in Christ is the promise of the Spirit through faith. Besides, God also blessed Abraham and his wife by making them parents in their nineties. Do you think God will do the same for you?
  2. They praise Abraham for his wealth, but never talk about how he became wealthy.

Early in chapter 12, we learned that Abraham left his extended family and kindred in Haran to wander in Canaan. He left with possessions, so he earned some on his own. But we also just saw he got more livestock, silver, and gold through deceiving Pharaoh. Deceit is much more a part of the story of the Patriarchs than we want to acknowledge.

They Will Say, ‘This Is His Wife’; Then They Will Kill Me

I’ve been talking as if Pharaoh was an innocent victim, and Abram used his wife’s beauty to con him. But was Abram correct about the threat? Would Pharaoh really have killed him if he had known he was Sarai’s husband? I’m having a hard time finding the answer to that. But what if it is true?

Egyptian art depicting Semites coming to Egypt
Semitic refugees coming from Canaan to Egypt because their land was in famine

Here is one possible scenario. Faced with starvation, Abraham decides to take his household to Egypt, where there is plenty of bread. He intended all along for the move to be temporary (Gen 12:10-11). After all, God sent him to Canaan, not Egypt. As soon as the land of Canaan could sustain his people, he would return.

Sojourn in Egypt

When Abraham gets to the border with his wife, his nephew Lot, his people, and his possessions, the soldiers notice his wife. They say she is his sister (according to plan). The guards report to Pharaoh, and he wants her as part of his harem. He tells them to follow plan A, take her to the palace and deal well with the brother. Plan B is to kill her husband, which they don’t do because (in Pharaoh’s mind) she has no husband..

Since the nearest male relative needs to sign off on the marriage, they bring gifts to Abraham and say, “The Pharaoh requests you and your sister join him for dinner tonight.” Of course, no one says “no” when the king makes a request, especially a foreigner who is only in the country at the king’s pleasure.

The pharaoh, having paid the bride-price for Sarai, takes her away. Abraham wants to protest, but when a king wants a woman for his harem, “no” is not an option. Esther and Bathsheba knew that quite well. What does Sarai do at this point? If she tells them Abram is her husband, he’s a dead man. If Pharaoh wants her in her bed, she can’t refuse. What does she do? Maybe she can play coy with him for a while, keeping him at arm’s length, but not burning that bridge altogether. Let him think she will have him (soon) in order to save her husband while trying her best to stay faithful.

That’s possible. But I know you’re dying to ask this question about Sarai and Pharaoh. Did they or didn’t they? To answer that, we need to dig into the Hebrew a little bit, and then compare this with the other “wife-sister” episode in Abraham’s story.

Did They or Didn’t They?

Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? (Gen 12:19a NRS). We have the Pharaoh saying, “I took her for my wife” (Cf. Gen 4:19; 24:4, 67; 25:1-2). KJV renders it “So I might have taken her to me to wife.” That is the Sunday School version, where we don’t want to tell our children Abram pimped his wife to the Pharaoh in order to save his own hide. That version would have Pharaoh saying in effect, “You told me she was your sister. I might have taken her as my wife. I didn’t, but I might have.” And that would be reason enough for Pharaoh to protest.

In almost all modern translations, including NRS, NAS, ESV, NAB, NIV, there is no “might have.” The verb laqach in Hebrew typically means take. Like “take” in English, it can be used in many different ways. When paired with ‘ishshah (woman), it means to take [her] as a wife. A qal waw-consecutive is usually translated in the simple past tense, hence, I took her. (see Translation Notes below).

So did they or didn’t they? It sure sounds like they did. Translations that say anything to the effect “I might have taken her” appear to be uncomfortable with the obvious meaning of the text. But before we decide, we need to compare a similar incident.

Abimelech, King of Gerar: Another Unwitting John?

When Abraham sojourned in the territory of Gerar, Abimelech the king also took Sarah (Sarai and Abram’s names were changed in Genesis 17) into his household, because she was beautiful. This time, God speaks to the man who took Sarah from her “brother.”

But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.”

(Gen 20:3 ESV)

Laqach, is in the qal perfect, which indicates completed action, just as the qal waw-consecutive imperfect. Now it sounds like he has had sex with her, and God is about to avenge her husband. But here is what we read just a little later. After Abimelech protests that he is innocent, because Abraham told him she was his sister, God says this:

“Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her.”

(Gen 20:6 NRS)

So it says he took her, which would normally indicate they had sex. But it also says God kept Abimelech from sinning against me and did not let you touch her, which means they did not have sex.

If you only look at the text about Abraham and Sarah in the land of Egypt, you would have to conclude Sarah slept with Pharaoh, because he took her as his wife. That’s usually what that means. But since we have this case where a man “took her” [as a wife] but never “touched her” (because God prevented him), it is possible this happened with Pharaoh as well.

Gerar “In the Hands of an Angry God”

Like Pharaoh, God visited Abimelech and his people with a plague (20:17-18; cf. 12:17). They must have been wondering what was wrong. Finally, they knew. God tells him how to remedy the situation.

“Now then, return the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all that are yours.”

(Gen 20:7 NRS)

This is the only verse that specifically calls Abraham a prophet, but he has already been playing the role of a prophet in many ways. Of course, the king must restore the prophet’s wife to him. Abraham, as a prophet, will then pray and heal Abimelech and his household of their plague of childlessness that started when he took Sarah into his household.

What Have You Done to Us?

Naturally, he is furious with Abraham for putting him in that position.

So Abimelech rose early in the morning, and called all his servants and told them all these things; and the men were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I sinned against you, that you have brought such great guilt on me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that ought not to be done.”

 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What were you thinking of, that you did this thing?”

(Gen 20:8-10 NRS)

How have I sinned against you, that you have brought this great guilt on me and my kingdom? That sums it up quite well. Abraham brought the guilt upon them. That is no way to treat your host. Why would Abraham do this? It’s the same story we heard when he went to Egypt.

Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife.”

(Gen 20:11-12 NRS)

This is where we find out Sarah is his half-sister.

Princess Leia: "I kissed my brother once." Cersei Lannister smirks.
Imagine Cersei is Sarah.

We don’t know who her mother is, or under what circumstances she was born. My guess is Abraham and his brothers found out about her when she was a young girl, right about marriageable age. I wonder how they met. I wonder how they reacted when they found out they had the same father.

He says, I thought there is no fear of God at all in this place, but verses 8-10 say otherwise. When they found out God was offended and threatening to kill them, they very much feared God. Also in Kiriath-Arba (later renamed Hebron), he appears to have good relations with the people there (Gen 23:1-20). So as in Egypt, I have to wonder if this is real. Did they really kill husbands of beautiful women to take them as wives? After Abraham brought plagues on his host in Egypt, why is he doing this again? It turns out this was not limited to Egypt and Gerar.

“And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the kindness you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.’”

(Gen 20:13 NRS)

He claims everywhere he goes, there is no fear of God. They will kill him to get to his wife, “so please, dear, say I am your brother.” I could see this happening in a place here or there, but do they really have to do this at every place to which they come? And just like in Egypt, he makes out like a bandit.

Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male and female slaves, and gave them to Abraham, and restored his wife Sarah to him. Abimelech said, “My land is before you; settle where it pleases you.”

(Gen 20:14-15 NRS)

More sheep, oxen, and male and female slaves. And this is to a man who already has a lot of these (13:2). After restoring his wife, Abimelech allows him to settle anywhere in his territory. That was very important to a man like Abraham with no land of his own. Could he have negotiated this without bringing plagues on his host?

Sarah is Innocent … This Time

To Sarah he said, “Look, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; it is your exoneration before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

(Gen 20:16 NRS)

Abimelech declares in the open she is completely vindicated and restored to her husband, and nothing happened between them. She keeps her honor. But was that true in every place they went? Did she succeed in keeping every king from touching her? Or was Abraham pimping her out for cattle, sheep, slaves, gold, and silver everywhere they went?

And was Sarah really unwilling? The first time, she might have just gone along because everything happened too fast for her to think it through. What if Abraham is right and they will kill her husband? But if they kept doing this everywhere they went, she had to be a knowing accomplice.

Reality Check

Apparently, we are supposed to believe that every king in Canaan and Egypt had a standing policy of killing husbands of beautiful women, so they could take them into their harem. If the woman wasn’t married, he would acquire her the normal way, by negotiating with her closest male relative. Abraham only started doing this in Egypt, which means he passed through the land of Canaan without ever having to do this with the kings there. Now, we’re told he has to do this everywhere, because every king they had already met suddenly started killing husbands, even though this was never an issue before.

map of ancient Egypt and Middle East
Some of the cities in Canaan Abraham passed through on the way to Egypt: Shechem, Jerusalem, Hebron (called Kiriath-Arba), and Beersheba. Gerar was in the Negeb Desert.

And why didn’t word get around? You’d think after this happened to one king, word would have spread along the trade routes. “Sarah is beautiful, but don’t believe her or her husband Abraham when they say they are siblings. They are husband and wife. You’ll be stealing a man’s wife, and his God will bring plagues on you until you release her.”

Is There Really No Fear of God in Every One of These Places?

Here’s what Matthew Henry’s commentary says about it:

Pharaoh’s reproof of Abram was very just: “What is this that thou hast done?” How unbecoming a wise and good man!…

The sending away was kind. Pharaoh was so far from any design to kill Abram, as he feared, that he took particular care of him. We often perplex ourselves with fears which are altogether groundless. Many a time we fear where no fear is.

Pharaoh charged his men not to harm Abram in anything. It is not enough for those in authority that they do not hurt themselves; they must keep their servants and those about them from doing hurt.

Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete), Genesis 12:10-20, retrieved from https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/matthew-henry-complete/genesis/12.html

I am inclined to agree with Henry. The evidence that Pharaoh would have killed Abram is flimsy at best. Maybe Abram really believed it. But if so, it seems he “perplexed himself with fears which were altogether groundless.” And when you see someone claim they fear for their lives yet walk away not only unharmed but richer than before, that is always suspicious. What are we to think when Abraham profits over and over again from the same “mistake”?

Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

And Sarah was sixty-six when they started doing this. Okay, this is going to be a little politically incorrect, but we need to get real here. At sixty-six years old, Sarah is not only beautiful. She is smoking hot. When a king who already has a harem with just about every beautiful woman in the territory at his beck and call, and he sees another woman and says, “I’ve got to have her,” we’re not talking about inner beauty. We’re not talking about personality. We’re not talking about love. We’re talking lust. At. First. Sight.

Van Halen: Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love

Could a sixty-six year old woman be so hot she would inspire instant lust in a man like that? Maybe. I’ve seen some women in their sixties who look good. What about a woman ninety years old and likely pregnant (18:10-15)? I’m sorry. I’m just not seeing it.

I’m not saying she couldn’t be beautiful to her husband or to people who knew her. I know men (including myself) need to focus more on inner beauty than outer beauty, but try telling a king he needs to do that. Try telling a king with a harem he needs to stop collecting “barbie doll” wives and concubines and find a soul mate. See how far you get with him. The kind of beauty the story is saying Sarah has at this age just does not happen, even for a woman who lived to be one hundred twenty-seven.

And we are supposed to believe they got away with this? Repeatedly? He said he asked Sarah to do this every place they went (20:13). As I said before, after this happened in Egypt, how could word of this not have gotten around to all the kingdoms of Canaan and Mesopotamia, given the extensive trade that went on in the area?

Conclusion

There is no way Abraham and Sarah look good in this. Sarah might have done it reluctantly the first time to protect her husband. But by the time they got to Abimelech, they had to be a team on this. The king’s officials ask about her and Abraham’s relationship, and they say they are brother and sister. That’s half-true but omits the most important detail.

The king takes her into the palace so he can woo her. Sarah plays coy but most likely slept with some of the kings they scammed. God shakes down the king with plagues. The king pays them, so Abraham will pray and remove the curse. So every time, Sarah and Abraham leave richer than they came in. We don’t know how Abraham became rich in Haran, but doing this in every place is how they became very very rich.

The episode with Abimelech raises the possibility that Sarah never really slept with Pharaoh. If you wanted to say Pharaoh took her as a wife but did not touch her, this is your best evidence. But in the process, the author made Abraham and Sarah both look far worse than if she slept with Pharaoh.

And this is the man and woman God chose to initiate the God’s covenant with the Jews? The bloodline of the Messiah officially starts with them. That seems to be why God protects them. The Bible does say that God’s call and gifts are irrevocable, apparently even for such scoundrels (Romans 11:29).

At this point, I’m almost inclined to believe this happened, simply on the ground that no one in ancient times wanted their nation’s founder to be so deeply flawed. Even so, it still sounds too far-fetched to be real for reasons I named above.

Usually, when authors make up stories about their founders and heroes, they try to make them look better and more praiseworthy. This author seems to have deliberately made Abraham and Sarah look worse as human beings. Why? I can think of two reasons, which I will explain in the next two blog posts.

Translation Notes

In Genesis 12:19 and 20:3, the key verb is laqach. The simple meaning is “take,” but when paired with ‘ishshah, it means “to take [a woman] as a wife.” Here is an excerpt from the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon.

Hol4162  לָקַח

7. l¹qaµ °iššâ take a wife Gn 251, for onesf. Gn 419, for s.one else Gn 244, l¹qaµ °œt¹h lô le°iššâ Gn 1219;

Pharaoh

וָאֶקַּ֥ח אֹתָ֛הּ לִ֖י לְאִשָּׁ֑ה (WTT) – וְ particle conjunction   לקח verb qal waw consec imperfect 1st person common singular.

Translation would normally be “I took her as my wife.”

Abimelech

In Genesis 20:3, the phrase, the woman whom you have taken, in Hebrew is

עַל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אֲשֶׁר־לָקַ֔חְתָּ (Gen 20:3 WTT).

laqach is qal 2nd masc. sing., “… you took,” or “… you have taken.”

So in both cases, it should be translated in the simple past tense. There is nothing to favor the KJV rendering “I might have taken her.”