[The Tuesdays with Markie Bible study continued this past week and our focus remains the Old Testament book of Genesis. Specifically this week, we looked at chapters 22, 23, and 24. At the end of this post, you'll find links to previous posts in this series.]
1. Chapter 22 presents yet incident in Scripture difficult for us to understand or explain. God tells Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited and long-promised son, Isaac. It's unfathomable at many levels: It's impossible to understand why God would make such a command or why Abraham's trust in God was such that he could even consider doing it.
2. Genesis 22:1 begins, "After these things [the treaty Abraham made with King Abimelech and his commander, Phicol] God tested Abraham..." Commentator Gerhard von Rad notes, "The idea of temptation, i.e., of a pedagogical test which God permits men to endure in order to probe their faith and faithfulness is not really new in the patriarchal stories..." As I consider my own children though, it's a test from which I would have recoiled and which I most certainly would not have passed.
But as the notes for the passage contained in The New Oxford Annotated Bible point out, "The present story portrays a miracle of faith: Abraham received back the promise [that he would be the father of nations through his miracle child, Isaac] after showing that he had the faith to surrender his only heir..."
Scholars like von Rad reject the idea that this story was told as a polemic against Canaanite practices of child sacrifice. The point is that Abraham has learned to trust, or have faith in, the promise and the Promiser, something that is underscored in Genesis 22:8.
2. The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is in keeping with an ongoing motif we've seen in Genesis 12 to 22. Time and again, God's promise of a new nation descending from Abraham appears to be hanging by the slenderest of threads. Always, seen through the squinting eyes of errant human faith and comprehension, God's promise is a dim light--barely an ember--seemingly on the brink of being extinguished. But God always lights the fire again.
Twenty-five years had passed from the time God first promised Abraham (then Abram) that he would father God's people until the birth of Isaac. It was so difficult for Abraham and Sarah to trust God and God's promise that on more than one occasion, they had taken matters into their own hands. Sarah gave her slave, Hagar, to birth a son. But God said that Ishmael, the result of that coupling, would not be the heir of promise. Twice, fearful of what others might do to him and thereby extinguish the promise, Abraham had lied to kings through whose domains he was traveling about the nature of his relationship with Sarah, nearly allowing the one designated by God to be the "princess" of Israel, the founding matriarch, to be taken in as other men's concubines. Each time, God intervened to keep the promise alive.
At times then, Abraham displays a puny faith, one that at times caused him to blush and blubber prayers of repentance before God. No matter. Genesis tells us that Abraham "believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). In other words, however haltingly, Abraham trusted in God and in spite of Abraham's sins and failings, God counted that belief as righteousness. By faith, he had a right and lasting relationship with God, the same kind of relationship we have available to us for belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus once said that all we need is faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. What's important isn't the size of our faith, but the size of the One in Whom we have faith!
3. How old Isaac was in Genesis 22, we don't know. But he was obviously old enough to know what was going on.
4. The ram in Genesis 22:14 exemplifies a more subtle form of divine intervention than we have typically seen in this book. God makes no grand pronouncements. There are no pyrotechnics. Just a ram "caught in a thicket by its horns." Interestingly, the ram may have been there all along, as von Rad points out. But Abraham noticed it at the right moment.
Sometimes, we become caught up in looking for big signs from God when God is already speaking to us. A Pentecostal colleague has told me more than once, "We Pentecostals are always looking for some big word from God. But God already gave us a Big Word. The Bible is God's Word." He's right. (And it isn't just Pentecostals who make this mistake!) The Gospel of John says that Jesus is the Word, God's ultimate revelation of Himself and of His will for us. Like U2, you and I can spend our lives saying, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for," when what we're looking for has already been provided and shown to us by God. We need to look at life through the eyes of faith.
By looking through the eyes of faith, Abraham passed the test and the promise was preserved!
5. The little report of the growing family of Abraham's kin back in Iraq may seem an unnecessary excursus here. But it really sets the table for what's to follow.
6. Genesis 23:1-20 doesn't seem terribly important and in the grand scheme of Genesis' story of the establishment of God's people, Israel, it probably isn't. But it does give a sort of whimsical view of how negotiations in the marketplaces of the ancient Near East were conducted. As von Rad points out, by his purchase of the cave at Machpelah as a burial spot for his wife, family, and himself, Abraham established a beachhead in the land God was to give to Israel so many centuries later.
7. I once heard a sermon on "success" by Pastor Rick Warren based on Genesis 24. Warren pointed out that this chapter uses the word success and related terms more often here than in any other chapter in the Bible.
This probably is significant for several reasons. First: Success isn't really a religious word. As von Rad points out, its use may be reflective of the speech and thought world of Abraham and his servant. They hadn't developed religious nomenclature. They didn't speak what Lutheran theologian Gerard Sloyan called religionspeak, the native language of a land where nobody lives. No pious phraseology here. The servant asks God for success in the mission entrusted him by his master, Abraham.
Second: Was this a wrong thing for the servant to ask of God? "What's the alternative?" Warren asked in that long-ago sermon, "That he ask God for failure?" When our intentions are to honor God, there is no way that asking God to bless us and our efforts can be wrong. I think that God wants us to know that!
8. The servant here isn't a run-of-the-mill servant. This guy is trusted by Abraham. Think chief administrator, trusted confidante, consigliore.
9. God does give the servant success and apparently because of Abraham's frail health, takes Rebekah, the wife for Isaac, back to his master's son immediately. By the time, Abraham has apparently passed away, bringing down the curtain on his part in patriarchal history.
10. Genesis 24:62-67 is a wonderful scene, epitomizing the manner in which this entire chapter has shown the subtle interplay between God's actions and human actions that characterize how life really is for people of faith. In this, it picks up the message of the ram in the thicket in chapter 22, that God often operates in subtle ways which, apart from viewing events through the eyes of faith, we might not see. The servant might well have simply thought that all his success, the very success which came in specific answers to specific prayers, was simply a catalog of coincidences. Nonetheless, whether swayed by the expensive gifts the servant brought or not, Rebekah's family seems as persuaded as the servant himself that all of this was God's doing.
The entire chapter also fuses two disparate notions of how a marriage should be initiated. On the one hand, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is, as was customary in Abraham's time, arranged by the groom's father with the bride's family. On the other, Rebekah's family, represented by her brother Laban, who oddly receives top-billing over his father, and the father Bethuel, leave it up to the prospective bride whether she will leave immediately to meet her husband. Rebekah is given a level of say in the matter that probably would not have ordinarily been given women in those days.
She opts to leave immediately and then you have this wonderful scene at the end of chapter 24. The couple whose marriage was arranged fall madly in love with each other. It's love at first sight. The Bible is actually pretty keen on romantic love, so long God is at the center of people's lives. (Check out the Song of Songs in the Old Testament if you don't believe me.)
[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: