Cornered By Laban, By Esau, By God

Today’s reading, Genesis 31-33, takes us along as Jacob gathers his flocks, herds and wealth (and Rachel steals her father’s household idols) and makes a run for it. Ten days later, Laban caught up with him, and they reconciled – probably only because God had warned Laban in a dream not to say anything to Jacob, good or bad. So Laban pretty much only asked questions. Jacob answered them. They set up a watch pillar – not so much as a point of worship as it was a monument to their mutual mistrust – and if you hear someone using the term “Mizpah” to describe God’s blessing on an affection between two separated by distance … they missed the context.

Jacob pledged an oath “in the name of the Fear of his father Isaac.” (His father had reason to fear the Lord.) He offered a sacrifice, held a feast for his pursuing kinfolk, let ornery old Grandpa Laban kiss the kids goodbye.

Then Jacob and Laban parted ways.

As Jacob popped the tentpegs and journeyed on, angels met him. What interaction they might have had with him isn’t shared. But he did sent emissaries on toward his brother Esau, toward whose country Edom he was headed. He sent the message that he had acquired wealth during his stay with Laban and sought to find favor in Esau’s eyes.

The brevity of the response that came back disturbed him: Esau was on his way with four hundred men.

Jacob assumed the worst; that his selfishness and deceit against his brother had not been forgiven, and Esau’s vengeance would be swift.

A general like his grandfather Abraham, Jacob separated the troops so that at least some might survive if Esau thought he had slaughtered them all. And he sent gifts to placate his brother, widely spaced, so that as his brother encountered each party, the gifts would increase and increase and increase. Finally, he sent everything he had (but his family) across the Jabbock ford and remained on the other side, alone. I think it was a last-ditch attempt to save his family; if they told Esau that Jacob was still on the other side of the river, he might not waste time killing them all, but rush past them to get to his brother.

That night, Jacob had a most unusual experience – even more extraordinary than his dream about the angels, the ladder and God’s voice from heaven.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob (“He Grasps”), but Israel (“He Struggles With God”) because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”

Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. ~ Genesis 32:24-31

Exhausted, crippled, unable to escape, Jacob/Israel looked up … and there was Esau/Edom.

And the most extraordinary ending came to this part of Jacob’s story.

It’s an epic story. The main character is as much anti-hero as hero. He’s complex. He cheats his brother. He conspires with his mother. He lies to his father. He succeeds. He tries to live and deal honestly with his uncle. He fails. You care about him. He becomes the personification of God’s people, the one for whom they are named: Israel. It’s a fascinating story, well worth deeper study than these few lines can contain.

Several years ago, I wrote a short post about studying scripture that references the surprise ending to the conflict between Jacob and Esau, having no inkling that all these months later I might actually try to blog through the entire Bible in a year:

We don’t study like we used to.

Perhaps it’s bad that we don’t study as much as we used to.

Perhaps it’s good that we don’t study the way we used to: to prove what we already “know” to be true.

We still need, like Jacob, to wrestle with God. We need to have our spiritual hips knocked out of joint once in a while, so that we can’t escape facing what we fear.

Because what we fear most just might be the long-absent older brother we’ve cheated, running with his army to catch up to us and deliver – not vengeance – but a kiss of greeting and an embrace of love.

Love casting out fear: the last thing we expected. ~ “Wrestling With God”

Four Wives, Twelve Kids, and A Lot of Sheep

When you read Genesis 29-30, do you feel like you’re reading the script summary of a prime-time TV soap opera?

In the beginning of the reading, Jacob – apparently penniless, but just blessed by God with a six-fold promise like his grandfathers – entered Haran, where his uncle Laban lived. Meeting some shepherds at a stone-sealed well, he asked after Laban. They knew Laban; in fact, pointed out that Laban’s daughter Rachel was bringing her father’s flocks to the well. Rachel was a babe. (See Genesis 29:17.) Jacob lost no time, rolling the stone away from the well, watering the sheep, and then kissing Rachel and telling her that he was her cousin. So she ran to tell her father.

After living and working with Laban’s family for a month, Laban tried to negotiate terms of payment for his nephew. Jacob wanted to marry his younger daughter, Rachel, in exchange for seven years of work. Laban saw an opportunity, and agreed.

However, the tables turned on trickster Jacob, who had cheated his brother out of his birthright and deceived his own father into giving him Esau’s blessing as well. After working seven years to get Rachel – which seemed only like a few days to him, he loved her so much – her father sneaked older daughter Leah into the honeymoon tent, and Jacob was none the wiser till morning.


Jacob confronted Laban, who explained that it wasn’t his custom to give away his younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Jacob ended up agreeing to work another seven years to pay the dowry for Rachel. At the end of a honeymoon week with Leah, Laban approved his engagement to Rachel.

After working out the second seven years, Jacob took Rachel as his wife and became a bigamist, just like his grandfather Abraham.

“… and he loved Rachel more than Leah.” ~ Genesis 29:30b

Never, ever a good idea.

It got worse. Seeing that Leah was not loved, the Lord blessed her with four sons by Jacob. Rachel, not having children, became jealous and gave Jacob her maidservant Bilhah to be his wife (just as grandmother Sarah had done with Abraham and Hagar). They had two sons together. Three wives, six sons. Then Leah gave Jacob her maidservant Zilpah, and they had two sons. Four wives, eight sons. Then Leah and Rachel got into a fuss over some plants of some undescribed value, and in exchange for the ones Leah gave Rachel, she got Jacob for a night. They had a fifth and sixth son together: Four wives, ten sons. Plus a daughter named Dinah.

Finally, the Lord had compassion on Rachel and enabled her to have a son named Joseph (“May He Add”), hoping that she might have another.

Can you imagine God choosing to work His will through one of the families in a television soap opera?

Four wives, twelve kids. All that in seven years.

Because when the seven years of Rachel’s dowry were over, Jacob went to Laban to settle accounts and start his own shepherding empire back in his own homeland, the land God had promised to him. Jacob asked only for the dark and color-speckled sheep among Laban’s flocks – by far the minority – and Laban agreed. But the very next day, Laban – the old cheat – separated all of the dark and color-speckled sheep from his flocks and gave them to his sons, sending them three days’ journey away to graze.

Jacob, perhaps through long and close association with the flocks as an on-site shepherd of at least fourteen years, had figured out a way to affect the color of the wool of the flocks. So he spent the next mating season arranging for the birth of dark and color-speckled sheep … building his own young, strong flock.

And he prospered as a result, accumulating large flocks, many servants, plus camels and donkeys.

Nice family.

Should they have prospered as they did, tricking each other and making deals and trying to get ahead; get their own way? They did. Is that they way God planned for them to get ahead?

Or did He allow them – in the absence of a law or other moral code – to experience the fact that through those “dealings,” you can get ahead … but only at the cost of others; of relationships that should have been dear to you, trust that you should have built on, and love for others that you should have felt?

Was He hoping that they would call on His name and ask Him what to do and how to live and what He wanted?

Was He waiting to see if they would build their own ethic?

Maybe the most important thing to note is that throughout the deceit and cheating and bigamy, His promise toward this family never changed, from one generation to the next. He confirms it with each patriarch in turn.

And while His choice may be inscrutable to us, it is as sure as daytime and night-time, seed-time and harvest.

Lies, Disguise and a Ladder

Today’s reading: Genesis 26-28.

When God speaks prophetically, does He reveal the future that He wants to happen, or just the future that will happen?

Back in Genesis 15:13-14, God told Abraham in the dreadful darkness:

Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.

Ten chapters later, He told Rebekah:

“Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” ~ Genesis 25:23

Are those events that He wanted to happen and would cause to happen … or did He just know for certain that they were going to happen, and He would work through them?

As Isaac aged, his eyesight and energy dimmed. He sent firstborn – by moments – Esau to snare and prepare him some tasty wild game (did it trigger an unpleasant memory for Esau of a deal made over red stew?) so that he could receive his father’s blessing.

Rebekah, overhearing the request, waited until Esau left and told Jacob to dress in his brother’s outdoorsy-smelling clothes and pad his less-hairy arms with goatskin. It was all a lie to fool his father and receive the blessing that went with the birthright he had cheated away from Esau in a weak moment over that red stew. He would pretend to be his brother. This time, though, she would cook – and accept the responsibility for any curse that might come from being discovered.

Before I became a dad, I couldn’t understand how such a transparent ruse could have worked. But now as a dad, I do. You want to think the best of your children. You don’t want to think that they would deceive you, lie to you, steal from one another, conspire with their mother against your wishes. So, even though Isaac can’t rely on his eyes and doubts his ears (“The voice is the voice of Jacob …”), he trusts his fingers and his nose. He blesses the slightly-younger son with abundance and power and security.

No more had Jacob scurried out of his father’s tent than Esau entered; father and firstborn discern the deception, and the only blessing left for him is what God foretold to Rebekah, plus …

“But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck.”

Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” ~ Genesis 27:40-41

Rebekah, told of Esau’s threat, urged Jacob to flee for his life and used her dislike of Esau’s Hittite wives to encourage Isaac to send him Haran for a bride among her relatives. Once sent, Jacob went. If he took time to pack provisions, it certainly doesn’t show in the text of the story!

Esau, furious at Jacob, married another Canaanite woman to spite his parents. That made three. Did I already say something about bigamy being a bad idea? Is there such a thing as trigamy? Esau would gain infamy as Edom, the Red Man, and head of the warrior clan later known as the Edomites – yet another thorn in Israel’s side for generations.


But Jacob’s journey took an odd turn. At a place he would later call Bethel (“House of God”), Jacob rested with a pillow for a stone. In a dream, he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven on a sort of ladder or stairway, while he heard God confirm the promise He had made to Abraham and Isaac.

Upon awakening, Jacob was thoroughly awed and upended the stone to become a pillar marking the place of this divine appearance. He made a vow himself – conditional to God holding up His end of the bargain – to recognize God, name that pillar His house, and give Him a tenth (perhaps just as his grandfather had honored Melchizedek).

So was it fair that Jacob – though completely lacking in resources at the moment – should stand to gain from his double deceit (just like his grandfather Abraham did)? Was God rewarding him for doing what we would have expected to deserve punishment?

Or were there consequences yet to come?

P.S. I thought about naming this post “Lies, Damning Lies, and Statistics” – the statistics being God’s accuracy in predicting the future. But I thought better of it, since the statistic is pretty obviously 100%.

Like Father, Like Son – But Not Like Brother

Abraham didn’t have the fertility problem that Sarah did. In today’s reading (Genesis 25-26:33), we discover that he married Keturah some time after Sarah’s death – when he was 137 years old – and fathered six sons. And while he gave gifts to these sons, when he finally passed away at age 175, he left it all to Isaac and was buried in the cave tomb he bought for Sarah.

I don’t know whether the custom of leaving an entire inheritance to the firstborn son began with Abraham or not, but it persisted. I also don’t know whether his choice was based on a preference for Isaac over the others, or the hope that under the patriarchy of a much older brother, they would work together to maintain his shepherding empire.

Ishmael remained pretty much out of the picture. With the wife his Egyptian mother secured for him in Egypt, he fathered the twelve sons God had prophesied.

“And they lived in hostility toward all their brothers.” ~ Genesis 25:18b

That just seems to be a running theme throughout this section of Genesis.

Cain murders Abel. Ishmael scorns Isaac. And, in the verses to come, fraternal twins Jacob and Esau will develop a fraternal rivalry so intense that it eventually becomes the subject of a Jewish proverb (Malachi 1:2-3; Romans 9:13).

It was so from the start. Within Rebekah’s womb, they jostled each other to the point where she inquired of the Lord, and His answer was:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.” ~ Genesis 25:23

Esau (“Hairy”) came out first, but Jacob (“He Grasps”) came out ahead.

The rivalry may have begun with their parents:

“The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” ~ Genesis 25:27-28

You know, that’s probably never a good idea. Had Rebekah ever shared God’s prophecy with her husband? Was she secretly backing a winner? Here’s how it played out …

Once, when Esau came in from hunting empty-handed and starved, he found Jacob cooking red stew. Jacob agreed to sell him some in exchange for his birthright, the inheritance. Esau reasoned that if he starved, everything would pass to his brother anyway, and sold it.

Isaac went on to the same kind of maturity as his father. Fearful of his life over his gorgeous wife Rebekah, he lied to the same king (or heir with the same name), Abimelech, about her being his sister (when, in fact, she was more of a cousin). This time Abimelech’s household dodged the bullet of God’s punishment by illness and barrenness (or worse). Abimelech, king of the Philistines, happened to look down from a window and saw Isaac caressing Rebekah – apparently in an un-brotherly fashion – and reached the right conclusion.

Quarrels over Abraham’s wells separated the two, and at the as-yet unnamed Beersheba the Lord confirmed His promise to Isaac.

“Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.” ~ Genesis 26:25

Abimelech came there and made a peace covenant with Isaac – perceiving that God was with him. They swore an oath on their treaty, enjoyed a feast together, and the new well turned out wet. Everything was going along pretty well, except …

“When Esau was forty years old, he married Judith daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and also Basemath daughter of Elon the Hittite. They were a source of grief to Isaac and Rebekah.” ~ Genesis 26:34-35

Did I already say “probably never a good idea”?

A Servant, A Bride, and a True Love

Who doesn’t love a love story?

Especially one where the bride and groom don’t meet until their wedding day?

That’s what happens in today’s reading from The Daily Bible, Genesis 24.

Abraham, at least 137 years old, was no doubt aware of how lonely his faithful son Isaac must have been, having lost his own dear wife Sarah and mourned and buried her. Isaac apparently had never married, looking after his elderly parents and the shepherding empire his father had amassed. And he was exactly a century younger than his dad.

So Abraham, perhaps too old to travel to his homeland, sent his chief servant with the instruction to find a wife for Isaac among Abraham’s kin. Arranged marriages appear to have been the custom of the time; remember Hagar acquiring a wife for Ishmael (Genesis 21:21)? Just so we don’t think the custom uncivilized or doomed to failure, let’s try to keep it in mind that it has persisted in a good number countries for thousands of years, where the divorce rates of many are significantly lower than our own! (And, although adoption practices differ, Angi and I were selected by the birth-parents of our children to love and raise and care for their babies. That worked fine for us. We didn’t go to a baby buffet and pick the ones we thought were the cutest. We just got them anyway. And we certainly don’t love them any less!)

The servant – never named, and Abraham has probably long outlived Eliezer of Damascus, whom he thought would inherit his wealth (Genesis 15:2-3) – asked Abraham if the woman he found would not return with him, should he take Isaac to meet her?

Abraham’s reply was an adamant “no;” Isaac is to live in the land God has promised to Abraham and his offspring. He also told the servant that God would “send His angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” And he made the servant swear an oath that he would not do that, with “his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham.”

(Now, that’s a custom we can do without.)

The servant took ten camels, provisions and a dowry of no small amount of wealth, set off – and prayed as he came to the town where Nahor lived. We knew, thanks to a preview in Genesis 22:20-24, that a girl named Rebekah was among his master’s kin. Abraham and the servant may have known that, too. So did God.

He knew she lived there. She was the one for whom the servant – and doubtless Abraham and Isaac – had prayed. Rebekah was beautiful (v. 16) and probably a generation younger than Isaac, I’d guess.

She came to the well where the servant had parked the camels, gave him a drink and offered to give water to the camels as well. That was just the sign that the servant had prayed for.

So he gave her an engagement ring. A nose ring, actually, and several bracelets, and asked if he could stay the night at her family’s compound. She said yes – and his immediate reaction was to bow down and worship the Lord for directing him there.

Rebekah brought her brother Laban to this servant and his fellow-servants, and after they had taken care of the camels, they offered him dinner. But he couldn’t eat until he had shared the whole story with them.

Now, when I’m writing, I usually don’t repeat something unless I want to emphasize it. The writer of Genesis quotes the servant as he recounts to Rebekah’s family, almost word-for-word, the story of the search. I have the annoying habit of usually inserting, “Did you get that?” between the telling and the retelling; fortunately, this writer doesn’t. But he leads you to the same conclusion that Laban and Rebekah’s father Bethuel reached:

Laban and Bethuel answered, “This is from the LORD; we can say nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has directed.” ~ Genesis 24:50-51

But in the morning, the family had second thoughts about losing their beautiful and industrious young treasure to the family of a truly distant relative, and begged the servant to let her stay another ten days. The servant was so excited, he had wanted to take her that morning – probably so that he could tell his master the story all over again. They left the departure date up to Rebekah, today or ten days. “Will you go with this man?” they asked. “I will go,” she said.

So they sent her and her servant with their blessings (and no doubt their tears), and she made ready, mounted a camel, and went where she had never been before.

Just like her father-in-law-to-be.

At the end of their journey, Isaac was in a field, possibly meditating, when he looked up and saw their camels. I’ll let the writer take it from here:

Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”

“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. ~ Genesis 24:64-67

There you have it. They met on the day of the wedding. At least it sounds like that! No doubt there were all kinds of celebratory preparations and ceremonies and feasts.

Was it true love at first sight?


The text says he loved her; it doesn’t say she loved him, or that it all happened right away. That sort of thing happens in romance novels, but hardly ever in real life.

Isaac and Rebekah had a good start, though. They both seemed to recognize God’s will in their lives, and to be willing to let it carry them together where He would. That kind of faith and trust is a good beginning to a lasting relationship. It is no guarantee that there will not be challenges, yet it is a great blessing for a couple to share a faith in the God who will lead them through challenges together.

That, you see, is true love.

God’s love.

Sacrifice, Testing, and Reasoning


That’s what God presented to Abraham in the reading of Genesis 22-23. After a few years have passed, and Isaac grew to become a boy old enough to speak and reason on his own, God called to Abraham to test him and tells him: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

Your son. Your only son, Isaac, for Ishmael is gone. Your only son whom you love.

And Abraham went – just as he had gone from his father’s land in Ur when God called; just as he had gone when famine threatened an only Egypt could feed; just as he had returned to the trees of Mamre to shepherd his flocks after Pharaoh had sent him away. It would seem that Abraham truly was a restless wanderer on the earth.

In going, he obeyed. He brought Isaac, two servants, the wood, and the fire. Father and son left behind the servants for a time, and Isaac pointed out what was missing:

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

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

Words of faith. Words of prophecy.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. ~ Genesis 22:7b-10

This was the son of promise, the one God specifically had said would receive the inheritance and through whom Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the heaves, and through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed.

What must have been going through Abraham’s mind as he grasped the knife in his hand and moved it toward his little boy?

The writer of this scripture, straight-journalism “just-the-facts-ma’am”-style never wavering, does not tell us. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews, however, does so centuries later:

Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. ~ Hebrews 11:19

This was the son of promise, given to a couple whose reproductive cycle should have long since ceased. Yet life was given by grace. A word of commendation for Abraham’s faith, obedience, and ability to reason through a paradox in a moment when most of us would have been reduced to a puddle of worthlessness. But praise God from Whom all blessings flow for His merciful intervention!

An angel stopped Abraham in the very act of obedience. A ram, its horns caught in a bush nearby, served as the sacrifice. Through the voice of an angel, God called to Abraham a second time and swore by Himself to confirm His promise.

I believe that God never asks us to do anything that He is not willing to do Himself. It will be hundreds of years, and dozens of generations, but He will raise up a Son from among Abraham’s descendants, a Son of God and a Son of Man, to be given as a sin offering for the healing of the nations.

After a brief account of some family news among Abraham’s kin, scripture then fast-forwards at least twenty years later. Abraham had turned 137 years old; Isaac a century behind him; Sarah a decade. We don’t know how long they were married: fifty, sixty years … maybe a hundred. They had been through the worst and the best of times together – two attempts to wrest them apart by kings who admired her beauty, the challenge of an imbalanced family through a servant-wife and child, the traveling, the staying, the promises, the waiting, the extraordinary request of God to sacrifice their son. When the paradox of this life came to its close for her at age 127, Abraham mourned and wept over her – and went to great lengths in negotiating the purchase of a field with a cave tomb for her near those trees of Mamre which had been their home twice, and for so many years.

And for perhaps the first time, Abraham became a landowner in the land God had promised to give him: One small field.

It was enough.

More Lies, More Wealth, More Mercy

Does it seem right to you in this reading (Genesis 20-21) that when Abraham lies a second time about Sarah being his sister rather than his wife – this time to his wealthy neighbor King Abimelech – that the same result ensues: Abraham is forgiven and made wealthier still?

It doesn’t to me. But then, I am not a part of that pre-Mosaic law culture, either. To our point of view, Abimelech is the one who has been the victim, courted a gorgeous though elderly woman whom – he has been told – is his good neighbor’s sister, then told directly by God: “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”

And even though Abraham explains his actions to his royal friend, he never apologizes.

It is Abimelech who pays Abraham and Sarah for the indignity they have suffered, and given land to live wherever they like. And Abraham prays to God to heal Abimelech and his household, who have evidently suffered illness and the indignity of barrenness the whole span of the misadventure.

Then again, we don’t know how forcibly Abimelech may have acted when he “sent for Sarah and took her.”

But we also don’t know the customs of that time and place. It might have been considered a genteel custom to pay a dowry, rather than just taking – and perhaps Abimelech did not offer one to Abraham.

On the other hand, Abraham seemed to have been as much in fear of Abimelech and his forces (20:8-13) as he had been of Pharaoh and his armies (12:10-13). It may have been the custom of that era for the powerful to simply take what they wanted, much as it is in these more civilized times today.

So, rather than judging Abraham by the standards of us current-day ordinary people, maybe we just ought to move on to Isaac’s birth.

I like the phrasing, “Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised.” Simple. To the point. And it’s always true, no matter to whom He says or promises.

Sarah discovers that she is, in fact, pregnant … and bears the son that she and Abraham have yearned for all those years. Twenty-five years since the specific promise. Probably many, many more before that.

I don’t know if all women want to sing like the women do in the Bible when they bear children. Maybe it was just those few that scripture tells us about. Sarah is certainly overjoyed:

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” ~ 21:6-7

It’s not a very long song. Perhaps it wasn’t a song at all. It just feels like one; a very happy little song.

They joyful couple, of course, give the boy the name God has specified: Isaac (“He Laughs”).

On this note of cheer, Abimelech and Abraham mend fences. Or, at least, they settle a dispute over a water well seized by Abimelech’s servants. Here, Abraham provides a gift of seven ewe lambs to Abimelech, which puzzles him. But he accepts, and the dispute is resolved.

I get the picture that personal pride has a big stake in the transactions of this era: whoever can show the biggest heart by providing the greater tribute, wins. And Abraham seems determined to win. Maybe I’m off-base about that, but it feels like an ongoing pattern.

The remainder of this reading is not really good news. Blended families are a challenge in any age, and Abraham’s clan suffers from bigamy.

A movie moment: Groucho Marx, assessing two beautiful women, proclaims: “I’d like to marry you, and then you, and then you all over again.” One objects: “Why, that’d be bigamy.” He shrugs: “Of course it’d be bigamy. It’d be big of you, and you – it’d be big of all of us.”

When a feast is thrown in honor of the day Isaac is weaned, his half-brother Ishmael makes fun of him. At about fourteen, he’s still not big enough to be that “big.”

You can imagine the ammunition he has – Isaac’s name:

“Eating solid food now, huh, you little gigglebox? I hope you choke when you chortle. When it comes time for the inheritance, we’ll see who has the last laugh!”

Never mind that the tyke probably couldn’t understand the words. His mother could. And she was livid: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

And, doubtless broken-hearted but reassured by God, Abraham does so.

Once again, God shows mercy to exiled Hagar and her son. As they languish from thirst in the desert – separated because she cannot bear to watch him die – “God Hears.” It is Ishmael’s name, “God Hears,” and God hears the boy crying. My guess is that the selfish little tweenager was not only crying from dehydration in the shade of the bushes, but also out of penitence … sorrow for what his words had wrought: suffering for himself, his mother; separation from his father.

An angel tells Hagar: “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

She looks up; sees a well, fills their wineskin with water and refreshes her pathetic child.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. ~ 21:20-21

And, no doubt, he grew up to be a wild donkey of a man, whose hand was against everyone and against whom everyone thrust their fists, living in hostility toward all his brothers – just as God had foretold (16:11-12).

In fact, most Arab nations – many of which to this day violently oppose Hebrews descended from Abraham’s chosen heir Isaac – trace their ancestry to the son named Ishmael.


Promises, Hospitality and Obliteration

Genesis 18-19 goes to extremes: from the extremely hospitable reception Abraham shows the three Visitors, to the extremely inhospitable way the people of Sodom receive God’s messengers, to the extremely effective way God obliterates Sodom and Gomorrah – and even the wife of Abraham’s nephew, Lot.

The Visitors bring news. Perhaps Abraham has been successful in persuading God to move up the timetable on his heir through Sarah; at any rate, the news is that their son will be born within a year. Sarah, listening nearby, laughs at the notion of giving birth at age ninety. Confronted, she lies and says she did not laugh.

But the promise is repeated, along with the question: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Many people regard the next events by asking the question, “Is anything too bad for the Lord to do?”

They want to believe in a nice, American-Santa-Claus-type-God who loves everyone and wouldn’t hurt a flea and gives gifts to all His children and would never, ever have a dark hooded companion like Black Peter who puts coal in stockings or switches the badly-behaved.

They want to forget that the God of Noah saved eight souls through the baptism of the flood that destroyed the remainder of evil humanity around them (1 Peter 3:20). They want to forget that God punished the purely selfish and violent evil of Sodom by raining down sulfur on its inhabitants: men, women, and children for the lack of even ten redeemable souls there. They want to believe that God is fully (or at least sufficiently) revealed in Jesus Christ – and so He is – but they want to forget that Jesus speaks of judgment and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46); that even insulting anger can lead to a destiny in a fiery hell (Matthew 5:22). They want to believe the first words of 2 Peter 3:9, but ignore the last six.

I don’t know what to say to people who only believe what they want to believe.

Scripture does:

“Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.” ~ Romans 11:22

But if you only believe what you want to believe in God’s word – about salvation from, but not consequences of, sin – you rob it of half its power.

Though he shows hospitality to God’s messengers, Lot is hardly blameless in this tragic mess of events. Offering his betrothed daughters to satisfy the sexual depravity of the mob at his door – which is demanding the two Visitors as the victims of their homosexual rape – is hardly admirable. He may not look back with longing at Sodom as it is destroyed as his wife does (and turns to salt), but he lives in fear in a cave with those daughters, where he succumbs to wine and their plan for him to father their children.

When that comes to pass, the sons they bear will become the patriarchs of the Moabites and the Ammonites – two thorns in the side of God’s people from that point on.


No Plans, Our Plans and God’s Plans

It’s been a while since God promised Abram several extraordinary things in today’s reading (Genesis 15-17) from The Daily Bible – long enough that God’s first words to him in a vision are, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

Abram reacts as if he’s not afraid at all, but anxious: “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” (apparently the head servant in his household; perhaps a distant relative).

God tells him that this man will not be his heir, who will come from his own body and his own genes … and his offspring will be as countless as the stars he sees outside his tent. That’s His plan.

That is a very great reward; a promise God seals by what seems to be a custom of the time: a sacrifice of several animals, between whose halved carcasses He passes in the likeness of a smoking firepot with a blazing torch. (Or maybe as an unseeable Person carrying the firepot and torch!)

A very important fact is then shared in the next verse:

“Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness.” ~ Genesis 15:6

It is a verse that will be quoted by Paul (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6) to illuminate that faith in Christ trumps circumcision and by James (2:23) to illustrate that faith and works of obedience go hand in hand.

For Abram was credited before he obeyed; before he was given circumcision as his part of the covenant to obey; before he was asked to give his own son as a sacrifice before God.

At this point, Abram has no son.

Sarai, still barren and in her seventy-fifth or -sixth year, urges Abram to take her handmaiden Hagar to wife and to bed, since their attempts to bear a child together have yielded no success. Abram accedes to her plan, and Hagar becomes pregnant … and spiteful toward her mistress, co-wife and rival.

Abram gives Sarai permission to “do with her as you like,” and Sarai mistreats her to the point that Hagar runs away. An angel appears to Hagar and tells her to go back and submit to her mistress, promising lesser blessings on her child. She does so, and bears Ishmael (“God Hears”) to 86-year-old Abram.

Once again, it’s worth noting that these are not perfect people. They are not blameless and innocent heroes and heroines of infinite wisdom and cleverness, certainly not of the type that populate Greek myths or Babylonian legends like the Gilgamesh epic. But it’s also worth noting that these are people who live in an era long before Moses’ law. We’re not told that He has commanded them not to lie or not to take matters into their own hands. Their instructions from God so far have been simple. As far as we know, Abram’s sacrifice is the first one God has specifically requested, and it is for the purpose of sealing a covenant – and He alone walks between the halves to accept responsibility for it. There is nothing for Abraham to promise in return. He can only receive the promise as a gift – in God’s good time.

It is thirteen years before the next recorded conversation between God and Abram, to confirm His covenant. No further plans are carried out. Now God has an unusual request: circumcise each male under his authority, eight days or older. The literal cutting off of the foreskin is a sign of what would happen if the request was disobeyed: that man would be cut off from his people.

God changes the name of Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of Many”), and the name of Sarai (“Princess”) to Sarah (“Princess”), promising that His covenant will be fulfilled through her child.

(Okay, her name’s meaning didn’t really change. She was still a princess in God’s sight, whether she had tried to make His plans happen through hers, or not.)

“Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Abraham laughs. (From all we can tell, he’s pushing for immediate fulfillment – God still hasn’t said when!) He may laugh with doubt, with joy, with disbelief, with giddiness, with hope, with persuasive cajoling … we’re not told. It’s one of the many passages of scripture reported with the classic straight-journalism “just-the-facts-ma’am” style of the 1950’s and 60’s. As an adoptive father who lost – in his early twenties – his ability to father children of his own or to give them to the wife he cherishes, I have no doubt that he wanted very, very much to believe.

I don’t know that wanting to believe is enough to be credited as belief, and therefore righteousness. But I do know that believing and doing go hand in hand. That’s what the apostle James said.

So Abraham confirms the covenant with this sign of circumcision, with himself, with Ishmael, with every male under his tents. (But not before pleading before God on behalf of his son with Hagar – and receiving His reassurance of a blessing, though lesser, for Ishmael.)

And maybe – just maybe – Abraham regained the sparkle in his eye, picked a few wildflowers for Sarah, went into her tent and kissed her lovely face and said, “Guess what? I have a new name.

“And so do you.”

Sex, Lies, Lots, and Choices

Oops! Did we miss something?

There’s an odd tense in the opening verse of the text from The Daily Bible today (Genesis 12-14): “The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” When had He said this? We’re not told the when or the where or the how or – most importantly – the why. Abram was a reasonably wealthy shepherd, son of Terah, son of Nahor, son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalalel, son of Kenan, son of Enosh, son of Seth … son of Adam and Eve. (Ever wonder why daughters are hardly ever mentioned in the genealogical tables of scripture?) Perhaps some of Shem’s and Seth’s good blood had found its way into Abram’s veins. Maybe he had demonstrated a devotion to God. Possibly God just chose him out of the blue for this pronouncement: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

Maybe the key to God’s choice is in the first three words of the next verse, though: “So Abram left ….”

He trusted God. He left his father’s house, took all of his own assets and servants and even his nephew Lot, plus his babe-of-a-wife Sarai. Even at advanced age, she could still turn heads. And that fact put a limit on Abram’s trust. Fearing that their journey would take them to lands of kings who would kill him to add her to their harems, Abram asked Sarai to tell them a half-truth: that she was his sister. (She was his half-sister; also a child of Terah.)

But she neglected to tell Egypt’s Pharaoh that she was also Abram’s wife. Pharaoh treated him well as he courted her, but only disease and pestilence resulted in Pharaoh’s house. When Pharaoh saw through the ruse as the cause of his misery, he evicted them both, but let Abram keep the wealth given as her dowry.

Abram believed God … but not quite all the way.

Returning to Bethel where God had first appeared to Abram and he had built his first altar, the herdsmen of Abram and Lot quarreled over possessions. Abram gave his nephew a choice of lots for grazing their flocks and herds. Lot chose the choicer lot, which included territory near Sodom – apparently known for its wickedness. Abram separated and settled in Hebron, “where he built an altar to the Lord.”

In time, the chief-kings of local tribes went to war, five against four, and the raiders carried off most of Sodom – including Lot and his possessions.

I wonder if the first thought that went through his head was, “I should never have lied to protect my own life in Egypt. I should have trusted God. I became rich with possessions, but now it will cost me dear blood.” I wonder if he had considered his nephew Lot to be his adopted son, the only offspring he had to inherit God’s promise.

Whatever went through his mind, Uncle Abram quickly mustered 318 trained warriors among his servants and routed the raiders in the night, rescuing Lot and recapturing the wealth of Sodom. Abram seemed to have no desire to accept tribute from Sodom’s king, having sworn before God not to accept more than food, possibly of a feast in his honor.

But there was another king present, neither of the four nor the five: Melchizedek of Salem, who brought out bread and wine. Scripture calls him a “priest of God Most High,” who blessed Abram and praised God, “who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

“Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

The legend is that Salem eventually became Jerusalem … that the tribute of Abram the rescuer to the host presaged tithing … and that the priest who was also a king set a precedent for a Descendant of Abram who would praise God and bless all nations.

But at the time, it must have seemed pretty unusual for the rescuer Abram to give tribute to the priest-king neighbor of the rescued kings of the area.

Maybe Melchizedek had reminded Abram of something important; something worth more than all the tribute he could have shared:

That he had not won the battle by his own skill and choices as a shepherd-general. That his 318 shepherd-warriors had not won the battle by their own cunning and courage and craft.

That the battle belonged to the Lord.

That the Lord was not slack concerning His promise.

That the LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion.