Conflict Resolution in the Shadow of the Cross (Part 1)

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1 Corinthians 6

1 When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!

I clipped a newspaper article some years ago that told a sad but interesting story. Listen:

Magistrate tells church, pastor to settle their own dispute

The Associated Press

Spartanburg, [SC] – A magistrate told church members and the pastor they are trying to fire that he may not have the authority to settle their months long dispute and urged them to resolve their differences out of court.

The dispute involves Foster Chapel Baptist Church and its efforts to oust its pastor, the Rev. Douglas E. Dennis.  On several occasions, the church has voted to fire Dennis, but he has refused to stop representing himself as pastor or to leave the parsonage.

On Thursday, Magistrate Robert Hall told about 60 church members crowded into a Spartanburg County courtroom for Dennis’ eviction hearing that they need to settle the issue themselves.

“I’m asking you as a judge, and maybe I shouldn’t, but I’m asking you as a Christian, to resolve this matter,” Hall told the crowd, which included Dennis’ supporters and church supporters…

Dennis refused to comment on whether he thinks the dispute is resolvable.  “I’ll be back in the pulpit on Sunday.  That’s all I can say.” he said.[1]

I am less concerned about the particulars of the actual case than I am the wider dynamics involved:

  • A church has a conflict between members.
  • The church finds itself unable to resolve the conflicts.
  • The church goes to a secular court for resolution.
  • The judge, a Christian, pleads with the church to reconvene and resolve the issue.

This raises lots of questions: Why could the church not resolve its conflicts? Were they right to go to a secular court? What did the judge see as a Christian that the members of the church could not (would not?) see? What happened? How were they supposed to resolve their issues? Did they?

These questions and the dynamics lurking behind them were present in the early church as well. In an intriguing text, the Apostle Paul reprimanded the Christians of Corinth for their going to a secular judge for conflict resolution, but, moreso, he reprimanded them for not being able to handle conflict better.

To be human is to live on the edge of conflict. Try as we might—when we try, that is—the possibility of conflict with other people is always there and, tragically, we too often see these possibilities actualized in interpersonal clashes. We might think that the church would be a safe-haven from such, that, somehow, people who all profess Christ would have no reason to conflict. To think this, however, would be naïve. For one thing, the scriptures contain many references to conflict and conflict resolution. This, in and of itself, tells us that this is an issue we need to consider soberly and diligently.

Let us consider, then, the nature of conflict in the church and how we might resolve such conflicts rightly. We will consider a number of introductory considerations first, and then move to specific and particular actions as we progress.

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Genesis 25

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Genesis 25

1 Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2 She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3 Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. 4 The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country. 7 These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. 8 Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. 9 Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10 the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife. 11 After the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi. 12 These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. 16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. 17 (These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria. He settled over against all his kinsmen. 19 These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham fathered Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah, the daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, the sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. 21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 The first came out red, all his body like a hairy cloak, so they called his name Esau. 26 Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. 27 When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. 28 Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. 30 And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) 31 Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” 32 Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33 Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

As we consider Genesis 25 and Esau’s selling of his birthright to Jacob, I would like to consider two meals: one of shame and compromise and the other of obedience and salvation. One meal led to the loss of a birthright. The other meal leads to the restoration of a birthright previously abandoned. One meal is the meal of man. The other is the meal of the Savior.

To unpack what is happening in this amazing and troubling exchange between Isaac’s sons, we need to understand the concept of birthright. The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery offers a helpful summary of this idea:

The concept of birthright is expressed in the OT by the noun bekor/bekora…The concept of birthright alludes to the privileges and expectations of primogeniture. The noun always occurs in the singular with the special meaning of the legal claims of the eldest son to a double portion of the inheritance and the right to bear the family’s name and other privileges.[1]

Esau, as the firstborn, therefore had a birthright. His was a privileged position of both blessing and responsibility. Yet he sells his birthright for a meal.

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Genesis 24:29-67

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Genesis 24

29 Rebekah had a brother whose name was Laban. Laban ran out toward the man, to the spring. 30 As soon as he saw the ring and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of Rebekah his sister, “Thus the man spoke to me,” he went to the man. And behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. 31 He said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside? For I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.” 32 So the man came to the house and unharnessed the camels, and gave straw and fodder to the camels, and there was water to wash his feet and the feet of the men who were with him. 33 Then food was set before him to eat. But he said, “I will not eat until I have said what I have to say.” He said, “Speak on.” 34 So he said, “I am Abraham’s servant. 35 The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great. He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys. 36 And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old, and to him he has given all that he has. 37 My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I dwell, 38 but you shall go to my father’s house and to my clan and take a wife for my son.’ 39 I said to my master, ‘Perhaps the woman will not follow me.’ 40 But he said to me, ‘The Lord, before whom I have walked, will send his angel with you and prosper your way. You shall take a wife for my son from my clan and from my father’s house. 41 Then you will be free from my oath, when you come to my clan. And if they will not give her to you, you will be free from my oath.’ 42 “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, 43 behold, I am standing by the spring of water. Let the virgin who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, “Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,” 44 and who will say to me, “Drink, and I will draw for your camels also,” let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.’ 45 “Before I had finished speaking in my heart, behold, Rebekah came out with her water jar on her shoulder, and she went down to the spring and drew water. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46 She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder and said, ‘Drink, and I will give your camels drink also.’ So I drank, and she gave the camels drink also. 47 Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose and the bracelets on her arms. 48 Then I bowed my head and worshiped the Lord and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49 Now then, if you are going to show steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, that I may turn to the right hand or to the left.” 50 Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing has come from the Lord; we cannot speak to you bad or good. 51 Behold, Rebekah is before you; take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.” 52 When Abraham’s servant heard their words, he bowed himself to the earth before the Lord. 53 And the servant brought out jewelry of silver and of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah. He also gave to her brother and to her mother costly ornaments. 54 And he and the men who were with him ate and drank, and they spent the night there. When they arose in the morning, he said, “Send me away to my master.” 55 Her brother and her mother said, “Let the young woman remain with us a while, at least ten days; after that she may go.” 56 But he said to them, “Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.” 57 They said, “Let us call the young woman and ask her.” 58 And they called Rebekah and said to her, “Will you go with this man?” She said, “I will go.” 59 So they sent away Rebekah their sister and her nurse, and Abraham’s servant and his men. 60 And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, “Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!” 61 Then Rebekah and her young women arose and rode on the camels and followed the man. Thus the servant took Rebekah and went his way. 62 Now Isaac had returned from Beer-lahai-roi and was dwelling in the Negeb.63 And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening. And he lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold, there were camels coming. 64 And Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac, she dismounted from the camel 65 and said to the servant, “Who is that man, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. 66 And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67 Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

I believe that one of the saddest interviews I ever read was with John Derbyshire of National Review. It began with this interesting answer:

  1. Are you a Christian?
  2. No. I take the minimal definition of a Christian to be a person who is sure that Jesus of Nazareth was divine, or part-divine, and that the Resurrection was a real event. I don’t believe either of those things.

Later in the interview, we read:

  1. Did you raise your kids as Christians?
  2. Sort of. My wife’s not a Christian, and never had any inclination to become one, so there was never much question of us attending church as a family. I could have just taken the kids, I suppose, but it didn’t seem right, especially as I wasn’t a regular churchgoer myself. I did little things to jumpstart the religious modules in their infant brains. We read the picture Bible, we said grace before meals, I tried to teach them the Lord’s Prayer, and so on. I made sure they know that Christmas is not just “Winter Holiday.” …We still say Grace before meals, incidentally. I see no reason to confuse the kids by imposing my own loss of faith on them. And heck, someone might be listening…[1]

What strikes me as pitiful about this is Derbyshire’s failure to give himself wholly either to faith or unbelief. At least at the time of this interview he seems to be unable to believe yet is also bound to some sort of “just in case” belief that effectively hedges his bets.

I very much hope that he has moved into true faith since this interview but this much is sure: what is expressed in this interview is not “faith” in any biblical sense. In fact, the Bible gives us a very clear definition of faith in Hebrews 11:

1 Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Those two nouns are very important: assurance and conviction. They are important and they are also likely not what many people both within the church and outside of it think of when they think of faith. For many, faith is the blind leap into the dark, a crossing of one’s spiritual fingers, a wager (to invoke the image of Pascal).

But biblical faith is an assurance and a conviction. Yes, it is an assurance “of things hoped for” and a conviction “of things not seen,” but it is assurance and conviction nonetheless. Such faith is what fueled the early church. It is also what drove the great men and women of the Old Testament. Faith is on brilliant display in Genesis 24, and I am tempted to argue that it should be placed alongside Hebrews 11 as the Old Testament “Hall of Faith”! I say this because faith is demonstrated by so many people in this chapter: Abraham, Abraham’s servant, Rebekah, Rebekah’s brother, and Rebekah’s father.

As we consider the second half of this amazing chapter, let us see biblical faith in action.

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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.

bindingofisaac

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