Genesis 24:1-28

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Genesis 24

1 Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh,that I may make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.” The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land. Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my kindred, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.”So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter. 10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all sorts of choice gifts from his master; and he arose and went to Mesopotamia to the city of Nahor. 11 And he made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time when women go out to draw water. 12 And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I am standing by the spring of water, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water.14 Let the young woman to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down 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.” 15 Before he had finished speaking, behold, Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, came out with her water jar on her shoulder. 16 The young woman was very attractive in appearance, a maiden whom no man had known. She went down to the spring and filled her jar and came up. 17 Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water to drink from your jar.” 18 She said, “Drink, my lord.” And she quickly let down her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. 19 When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. 21 The man gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord had prospered his journey or not. 22 When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, 23 and said, “Please tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24 She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” 25 She added, “We have plenty of both straw and fodder, and room to spend the night.” 26 The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord 27 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 in the way to the house of my master’s kinsmen.” 28 Then the young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.

Warren Wiersbe has observed that “it seems strange that the longest chapter in Genesis tells the story of how a man got his wife.” He pointed out that while “only thirty-one verses are devoted to the creation account in Genesis 1; sixty-seven verses are allowed to relate how Rebekah became Isaac’s wife.” “Why?” he asks.[1]

Well, that is strange on the face of it, is it not? The creation of the world would seem to warrant more attention than the marriage of Abraham’s son. However, we have learned by now that the issues at hand are never really the totality of the issues at heart in Genesis. Buying Sarah’s tomb in Genesis 23 was about much more than a lot of land and a grave. Finding Isaac a wife was about a lot more than getting Isaac married.

In fact, what we have in Genesis 24 is something unique: the intentional bringing in of an outsider into the covenant promise in a way that was part of God’s original plan. I qualify it thus because Rebekah needs to be distinguished from Hagar. Hagar had been brought into the trajectory of the covenant, it is true, but while, as we have seen, God blessed Ishmael, her child with Abraham, we have also seen that taking in Hagar was not God’s primary plan for covenant fulfillment. Isaac taking a wife was, however.

So this is important. Very important. Who will be brought into the unfolding of the covenant through Abraham’s family? What kind of bride will she be?

Yes, there is much in this chapter that should be considered when choosing a spouse. But there is also much more! There is much in this chapter that should be considered when we think about the kind of people God’s covenant people are to be.

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Genesis 23

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Genesis 23

1 Sarah lived 127 years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2 And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan, and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. 3 And Abraham rose up from before his dead and said to the Hittites, 4 “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.” 5 The Hittites answered Abraham, 6 “Hear us, my lord; you are a prince of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will withhold from you his tomb to hinder you from burying your dead.” 7 Abraham rose and bowed to the Hittites, the people of the land. 8 And he said to them, “If you are willing that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me Ephron the son of Zohar, 9 that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he owns; it is at the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me in your presence as property for a burying place.” 10 Now Ephron was sitting among the Hittites, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the Hittites, of all who went in at the gate of his city, 11 “No, my lord, hear me: I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. In the sight of the sons of my people I give it to you. Bury your dead.” 12 Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. 13 And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” 14 Ephron answered Abraham, 15 “My lord, listen to me: a piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.” 16 Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out for Ephron the silver that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites, four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weights current among the merchants. 17 So the field of Ephron in Machpelah, which was to the east of Mamre, the field with the cave that was in it and all the trees that were in the field, throughout its whole area, was made over 18 to Abraham as a possession in the presence of the Hittites, before all who went in at the gate of his city. 19 After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. 20 The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites.

On October 24, 1929, the stock market crashed, losing what would be about $396 billion today. The day after, William Faulkner began writing the novel As I Lay Dying. He wrote it from midnight to 4 a.m. every night for six weeks. The story is considered to be one of the great American novels.

It is about the Bundren family, a poor Mississippi family determined to carry the body of the deceased Addie Bundren from their farm to the county seat of Jefferson, Mississippi. So they load her homemade casket into the back of a wagon and take a nine day journey to Jefferson. Along the way, the family encounters a lot of problems and challenges and danger. Also, the reader begins to learn what is happening in each of their lives. Somehow, the word “dysfunctional” does not quite capture it.

Periodically in the novel people discuss why they have to carry Addie all the way to Jefferson to bury her. The answer is always the same: Addie wanted to be buried among her own people who are from and are all buried in Jefferson. She made her husband promise that he would take her back to Jefferson. It is a troubling and unsettling novel and its fame is well deserved.

It strikes me that As I Lay Dying is almost the complete antithesis of Genesis 23! In As I Lay Dying we find a mother’s insistence that her family carry her out of the land of her sojourning and back to the land of her birth for burial. And along this long and dismal trek the various issues and problems of the family begin to surface.

In Genesis 23 we find, on the contrary, a patriarch’s insistence that his wife be buried in the land of their sojourning. And throughout these preparations certain dynamics surface as well. These dynamics, however, are noble and good and beautiful. We find in Genesis 23 that Abraham adamantly and stubbornly insists on buying land on which he can bury Sarah. Why? Why is Abraham so insistent and what can this mean? More than that, why does this matter to us?

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Genesis 22

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Genesis 22

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” 15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba. 20 Now after these things it was told to Abraham, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: 21 Uz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel the father of Aram, 22 Chesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph, and Bethuel.” 23 (Bethuel fathered Rebekah.) These eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother.24 Moreover, his concubine, whose name was Reumah, bore Tebah, Gaham, Tahash, and Maacah.

I am certainly no art expert, but I have long had a deep appreciation and admiration for the work of Caravaggio. For instance, I find his famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” depicting Thomas exploring the wound in Christ’s side after the resurrection, to be simply overwhelmingly powerful and evocative. Another of his paintings that is profoundly moving is his 1603 work, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” which is usually attributed to Caravaggio.

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Wikipedia’s little summary of the painting is helpful:

The second Sacrifice of Isaac is housed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. According to the early biographer Giovanni Bellori, Caravaggio painted a version of this subject for Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, the future Pope Urban VIII, and a series of payments totaling one hundred scudi were made to the artist by Barberini between May 1603 and January 1604. Caravaggio had previously painted a Portrait of Maffeo Barberini, which presumably pleased the cardinal enough for him to commission this second painting.

Isaac has been identified as Cecco Boneri, who appeared as Caravaggio’s model in several other pictures. Recent X-ray analysis showed that Caravaggio used Cecco also for the angel, and later modified the profile and the hair to hide the resemblance.

What strikes me most about the painting is the force and motion of it. Elderly Abraham is pinning distraught Isaac’s head to the sacrificial altar, the knife advancing toward his throat. It seems to me that the focal point of the painting is Abraham’s face. He looks like a man who has taken such pains to make a decision to do something he does not want to do that he is actually somewhat irritated to be thwarted in his effort, even though he was certainly relieved. His brow is furrowed, the eyebrows set, yet even in the painting you can see the pain behind his eyes. The angel is to his right restraining his knife hand and pointing with his left index finger to the caught ram whose head is just beside Isaac’s. Once you know that the same model posed for Isaac as for the angel you can see it, even with the different hair. Thus, in the painting, when surprised Abraham looks up to see the angel, he is seeing, along with the viewer of the painting, the face of his son.

My goodness, what a painting! The characters are each and every one a story: Abraham, Isaac, the Lord (speaking through the angel). I would like for us to consider each of these characters and, as we do so, I would like for us to consider the “lower story” and “upper story” truths we find there. That is, what do we see in each character in the “lower story” of the actual events and what do we see in them in the “upper story” of the grand, overarching narrative of salvation history.

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Genesis 21:22-34

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Genesis 21

22 At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army said to Abraham, “God is with you in all that you do. 23 Now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my descendants or with my posterity, but as I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me and with the land where you have sojourned.” 24 And Abraham said, “I will swear.” 25 When Abraham reproved Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized, 26 Abimelech said, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, and I have not heard of it until today.” 27 So Abraham took sheep and oxen and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a covenant. 28 Abraham set seven ewe lambs of the flock apart. 29 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs that you have set apart?” 30 He said, “These seven ewe lambs you will take from my hand, that this may be a witness for me that I dug this well.” 31 Therefore that place was called Beersheba, because there both of them swore an oath. 32 So they made a covenant at Beersheba. Then Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his army rose up and returned to the land of the Philistines. 33 Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. 34 And Abraham sojourned many days in the land of the Philistines.

I do not know if students are still assigned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in school, but I hope so. I remember some classmates grumbling about having to read it when I was a student, but, for some reason, that novel touched me deeply and as I returned to it this week it did so again. It truly is an amazing story! Hester Prynne, living in Puritan New England in the 17th century, is punished and is forced to wear a scarlet “A” when she is found to be with child though she has no husband. In truth, she does have a husband though it was assumed he was lost at sea. When he returns and discovers her with a child, Pearl, he demands she tell nobody of their marriage and he commits himself to finding and bringing vengeance upon Pearl’s father, whose name Hester will not divulge. As it turns out the father is the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, whose secret sin is slowly killing him. Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s husband, is also a physician and he moves into the minister’s house to care for him not knowing that Arthur is the baby-daddy—not the term Hawthorne uses! Slowly it begins to dawn on Chillingsworth that Arthur is hiding something. One night Chillingsworth goes into Dimmesdale’s bed chamber and sees, etched in his flesh, a letter “A”! Long story short, Dimmesdale confesses his sin and dies, Chillingsworth, gutted by a desire for revenge, dies, and Hester and Pearl disappear. However, Hester, in time, returns to her little seaside cabin where she had been essentially exiled and, to everybody’s amazement, puts the scarlet letter back on. I am particularly touched by Hawthorne’s description of how Hester’s reputation and how people’s, especially women’s, view of her changes in these last years of her life. In short, Hester reclaims her name. Here is how Hawthorne puts it:

She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester’s life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit or enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.[1]

So the scarlet letter came, in time, to have a different meaning for people who saw Hester Prynne. Her selflessness and life of service changed it, changed her reputation we might say. As to what the letter came to mean, there might be a hint in chapter 12 of the book when, one night, as Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne stood on the scaffold in the middle of the town, a meteor lit up the sky and seemed to write the letter “A” across the heavens. The next morning one of Dimmesdale’s church members remarked about “the letter A, which we interpret to stand for Angel” since the governor, Governor Winthrop, had died that very night.[2] Perhaps this is Hawthorne foreshadowing that the “A” on Hester Prynne would, in time, come to stand for “Angel” instead of for “Adulteress” (though it should be noted that Hawthorne never actually says in the novel what the “A” stands for).

I think I like the book because, among other things, it communicates a kind of hope. One who is tarnished because of past mistakes, one who is branded a sinner by everybody, can, in time, see their reputation redeemed, see their name restored. Indeed, we need not be bound forever to our past mistakes!

To at least one person, Abraham had a scarlet letter too. It was an “L” and it stood for “Liar.” The person who viewed him thus was Abimelech, king of Gerar. In Genesis 20 Abraham had lied to Abimelech by telling a half-truth. He had said that Sarah was his sister (she was his half-sister) without disclosing that she was also his wife. As a result, Abimelech took Sarah into his house and the judgment of God fell on the house. When, mercifully, Abimelech was delivered from this danger and judgment by returning Sarah, he came to see Abraham as a paradoxic, as somebody who simultaneously (1) was a liar but (2) had God on his side.

Therefore, when we read about Abimelech and Abraham’s next exchange at the end of Genesis 21, we need to view it as Abraham getting a chance to redeem his reputation, as Abraham getting a chance to see the meaning of his own scarlet letter changed. Gerhard von Rad argues that the “Abimelech is still filled with misgiving, he is not yet sure of Abraham’s loyalty (hesed) to him. Above all, he knows that Abraham is under the protection and blessing of his very powerful God, which makes him completely sinister to Abimelech, the one on the outside.”[3]

This is true. So we ask: what does Abraham do to redeem his reputation, to reclaim his name before Abimelech. And in asking this we are asking this: how can we reclaim our name when we have ruined it through terrible choices? How can our reputation be restored? Are we doomed to wear our scarlet letter forever, or might we, on this side of heaven, come to have a name of substance and virtue once again?

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Genesis 21:1-21

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Genesis 21

1 The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11 And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. 13 And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes.16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.18 Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

As much as I deeply wished to maintain my staunch indifference to the goings of the royal family, the news this week was hard to miss and hard not to watch! Here is one summary of the situation:

Prince William has told a pal he can’t “put his arm around” his brother anymore – after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle abandoned their royal duties.

He revealed his “sadness” over the tense relationship with his younger brother and the splitting of the Royal Family, according to The Sun.

It comes days after Harry and Meghan announced they are stepping down as senior royals and plan to spend much of their time abroad.

The news took Buckingham Palace by surprise, with the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William, 37, given 10 minutes notice before the button was pressed.

Amid crisis talks and upset at the bombshell, The Sunday Times reports the Duke of Cambridge hopes one day everyone will “play on the team” again.

He said: “I’ve put my arm around my brother all our lives and I can’t do that anymore; we’re separate entities. I’m sad about that.

“All we can do, and all I can do, is try and support them and hope that the time comes when we’re all singing from the same page.”[1]

It is apropos, is it not, to our journey through Genesis: two brothers, two sons of promise, divided by a gulf. The particulars are quite different, of course, but the broad swaths of the stories are similar. Genesis 21 tells us of two brothers—Ishmael, the older, and Isaac, the younger—who were both part of the patriarchal “royal family,” we might say, but between whom there was a gulf, a chasm, that could not be crossed. Unlike the modern separation between the British brothers, however, these two sons of Abraham absolutely require our attention, for their story indeed is our own story, and we dare not turn away from it.

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Genesis 20

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Genesis 20

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. 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.” Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, “Lord, will you kill an innocent people? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.” Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.” 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? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done.” 10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What did you see, that you did this thing?” 11 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.’ 12 Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father though not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife. 13 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.”’” 14 Then Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and male servants and female servants, and gave them to Abraham, and returned Sarah his wife to him. 15 And Abimelech said, “Behold, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.” 16 To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver. It is a sign of your innocence in the eyes of all who are with you, and before everyone you are vindicated.” 17 Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, and also healed his wife and female slaves so that they bore children. 18 For the Lordhad closed all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

In Umberto Eco’s novel, Focault’s Pendulum, the narrator makes the following observation about the importance of fathers:

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us.  We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.[1]

I thought of that this week when reflecting on Genesis 20. In this chapter, Father Abraham does indeed teach us when he was most certainly not trying to. And, yes, Genesis 20 does represent a most “odd moment.” Sadly, what Abraham teaches us here is what not to do…but this too is teaching. In fact, I would like to argue that Genesis 20 is not a bad chapter at all for us to reflect on as we walk into a new year. On the basis of Abraham’s foolish behavior, then, let us make certain commitments for the coming year. Continue reading

Genesis 19

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Genesis 19

1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” But he pressed 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. 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, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any 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.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. 10 But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. 11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great, so that they wore themselves out groping for the door. 12 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. 13 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.” 14 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. 15 As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17 And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” 18 And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. 19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die.20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” 21 He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22 Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. 23 The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. 24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. 25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. 27 And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. 29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived. 30 Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 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 earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 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 arose. 34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day.

In 1973, Karl Menninger published his best-selling book, Whatever Became of Sin? He began the book in this way:

On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’[1]

That is a fascinating and humorous story…but not too humorous. Truth be told, it gives us pause. In fact, if one has been alive for any period of time, one realizes that there are few surer bets out there today than that if you stood on a street corner and indiscriminately pointed your finger at strangers shouting “Guilty!” a fair number of them will think, “How did he know?” After all, Paul wrote, “Fall all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That makes it a sure bet indeed!

Even so, as Menninger’s book title suggests, the modern world—inexplicably, I would argue, and against all evidence to the contrary—seems increasingly not to believe that sin exists. Menninger, as summarized by theologian James Leo Garrett’s consideration of the book, “noted that wrongdoing has been identified as ‘crime,’ as ‘symptom’ of illness, and as ‘collective irresponsibility.” Menninger then went on to call “on pastors, teachers, physicians, lawyers and judges, the police, the media, and statesmen to work for the recovery of sin as moral guilt.”[2]

I agree that the idea needs to be recovered. To do so, we need to regain a theology of sin. In theology, this study or consideration is called hamartiology, which comes from the Greek words ἁμαρτία, hamartia, meaning “missing the mark, error” and λογια, logia, meaning “study.” I would like to argue this morning that there are few more insightful chapters than Genesis 19 and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in helping us construct our hamartiology, our theology of sin. So let us consider this chapter and what it tells us about sin, about the nature and character of God, and about ourselves.

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Genesis 18:16-33

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Genesis 18

16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

In either 1947 or 1948 (there is some debate about exactly when), one of the most provocative acts of racial reconciliation occurred on the baseball diamond. Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball, had broken the color barrier in the major leagues when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. While many defended him as a man and as a player, he faced innumerable challenges. On one occasion, opposing fans in either Boston or Cincinnati (depending on the date of the event) were angered at the presence of Robinson on the field and were shouting numerous inappropriate and racial things at the Dodgers. Robinson was standing in the infield hearing and receiving all of these hateful words. He felt dejected and discouraged. He then experienced something he did not expect. One of his teammates, Pee Wee Reese, came and stood by him in front of the crowd. In the most famous version of the story, Pee Wee puts his arm around Jackie and stands there. As Reese stood there with Jackie Robinson the largely white crowd silenced itself.

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It was a powerful act. It was, to be sure, an act of racial reconciliation. It was also an act of challenge and rebuke to those in the stands. But what most interests me is that it was an act of intercession. In a general sense, intercession simply means the act of interceding, of one person going between two other persons or parties in a mediatorial role. And Reese certainly did that. When he stood there with his arm around Jackie Robinson he was interceding between Robinson and the angry crowd. He was standing between them, so to speak, and effectively saying something to the crowd about Jackie, namely, that he, Reese, saw Jackie as a human being, a man, a teammate, and a person of worth and dignity who was undeserving of their behavior. It was an act of intercession. 

The word also has a distinctly Christian connotation and it is, in fact, a very important theological concept in scripture. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality says of the word intercession:

Intercession is from the Latin intercedere, to ‘go between,’ ‘to intervene on behalf of another,’ or in relationships simply to ‘exist between.’ In intercessory prayer we stand on behalf of another, ‘between’ another and God, calling God’s attention to another and, no doubt, calling another’s attention to God.

Well before this famous act of intercession on the baseball diamond, Abraham interceded for Sodom. The record of this is in the latter half of Genesis 18. Abraham stands between wicked Sodom and a just God and pleads for mercy. In so doing, and in God’s response to Abraham’s intercession, we learn something about the character of God. What is more, we see the stage set for the greatest act of intercession the world has ever seen.

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Genesis 17:15-21, 18:1-15

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Genesis 17

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

Genesis 18

1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” 

Laughter is infectious. There is something about hearing somebody laugh that makes us want to laugh. A prime example of this would be Tom Hanks’ great laughing scene in the 1986 movie The Money Pit. If you have seen the movie, you will remember the scene. In the film, the characters played by Tom Hanks and Shelley Long are a couple who buy a big beautiful house at a very low price, believing they have found the deal of a lifetime. Instead, what they had found was a nightmare. Everything—and I mean everything—is wrong with this house and as the reality of what they had bought settles in their sanity and their bank account are emptied out and crippled. In the scene in question, the couple stand on the second floor and Tom Hanks and Shelley Long—dirty, exhausted, nerves shot—pour two buckets of water into a large bathtub. As they do so, the floor beneath the tub gives way and the entire tub falls into the floor below, shattering into a million pieces. The camera then looks up from below where we see the couple staring down into the hole where the tub once stood. Then it happens: Tom Hanks, holding the bucket, staring down in disbelief, laughs and laughs and laughs. It is an amazing picture of absolute exasperation and mental anguish. The laugh is beyond hysterical, though what lies behind it is less so. Even so, as the weird cacophony of sounds pour out, the viewer cannot help but laugh as well.

Laughter is infectious. Laughter is powerful.

In June 2019 Giovanni Sabato for Scientific American entitled “What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh.” In this piece, he outlined three of the major theories concerning human laughter:

Perhaps the oldest theory of humor, which dates back to Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers, posits that people find humor in, and laugh at, earlier versions of themselves and the misfortunes of others because of feeling superior.

The 18th century gave rise to the theory of release. The best-known version, formulated later by Sigmund Freud, held that laughter allows people to let off steam or release pent-up “nervous energy.”…

A third long-standing explanation of humor is the theory of incongruity. People laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts and at defiance of their expectations—that is, at the incongruity between expectations and reality.[1]

It is this last theory, the theory of incongruity that is most intriguing to me for it seems to explain perfectly what is happening with two instances of laughter in Genesis 17 and 18. I am speaking of Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter at God’s announcement that Sarah will have a child in her old age. Such an announcement did indeed present a “juxtaposition of incompatible concepts” and “the incongruity between expectations and reality.” The incongruity is between (a) God’s announcement of a child to be born and (b) Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age and infertility.

So Abraham and Sarah laugh at the promise, yet the promise stood…and it was fulfilled! Let us consider these amazing promises of God.

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Genesis 17

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Genesis 17

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

James Earl Massey has passed on a charming story from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s youth:

Harry Emerson Fosdick told the story of his father’s leaving the house one morning on his way to work, and he told his wife to have a young Harry mow the lawn if he felt like doing so. Fosdick’s father paused on the walk when he saw just how tall the grass had grown. He called back loudly and said, “Tell Harry he’d better feel like it!”[1]

It is a charming story but it raises an intriguing question: Is it possible to bring one’s desires in line with the commands put upon one? Or, put another way: Might we actually want to do what we ought to do?

William Temple once wrote, “The most agreeable experiences in life are those which are marked by a coincidence of duty and pleasure.”[2] This is so, but I wonder if such seemingly rare occurrences must remain merely coincidental? Might they become natural?

In Genesis 17, we find God calling for Abraham’s life to reflect the covenant promises he has received, for his behavior to match the promises. What is interesting about this is that this call for consistency between character and covenant does not hinge upon a raw assertion of divine power. The Lord rather speaks of Abraham having a changed character and being a new person, and he does so by giving Abraham a new name and a physical mark of belonging.

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