[We took a week off from our study of Genesis last Tuesday in order to accomodate Vacation Bible School happening in our church's building. Below are some random notes from our discussion of Genesis 15:7-18:33.] [Genesis 15, Genesis 16, Genesis 17, Genesis 18]
1. Scholars seem to agree that Genesis 15:7 begins a new portion of the narrative, one kicked off by a strange new revelation God gives of Himself to Abram.
2. The mysterious incident recounted in 15:7-21, appears to be interrupted by the narrative in verses 12-15.
Genesis refrains from giving a "meaning" to this incident, although through the years I have been subjected to some rather creative attempts to interpret it.
The "ritual" Abram undertakes here apparently is seen in Hebrew and other Semitic cultures. The New Oxford Study Bible notes, "The covenant ceremony described in vv.7-12 and 17-18 rests on an early tradition, as evidenced by the ancient ritual of making a covenant by cutting animals in two (Jeremiah 34:17-19) and passing between the parts."
The appearance of birds of prey that Abram drives away probably indicates the evil which "lurks at the door" any time we are close to God. It's a simple spiritual fact that the closer we get to God, the greater our temptations and the greater the chances we'll be subjected to assaults on our relationship with God.
In verse 12, Abram falls into a "deep sleep." According to Gerhard von Rad, the Hebrew term here connotes not the sort of sleep we experience in our beds at night, but a sleep in which our body, mind, and spirit are utterly open to a revelation of God. It's the sort of thing that might happen when we are totally focused on God and God's Word. (This is what can occur, according to the Bible, when we meditate on its words.)
In this reverie, God announces to Abram that more than four-centuries later, He would establish Abram's descendants, Israel, in the land then occupied by the Amorites.
After the sun sets, "a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch," probably the presence of God, signify God's seal on this covenant, by passing between the cut animals.
Passing amid the animals in this ritual, as Abram, the pot, and the torch do, signify the intent of the parties to complete it.
3. One question that came up during our class on Tuesday was why Abram was chosen by God? Another was, were all these peoples displaced by God's plans under divine punishment? The concern was whether God just operated by divine fiat.
One of the things that consoles me as an imperfect sinner, is that Abram was an imperfect sinner. But Abram trusted God. Even when he didn't trust God completely, Abram wanted to trust God. And God counted Abram's trust as "righteousness." He'll do the same for us.
Had Abram not trusted God, I believe that God would have found someone who would trust him and thereby be established as the paternal ancestor of all followers of God, whose only distinction isn't their particular virtue, but their belief in God.
Remember too, what the mission of the people who descended from Abram was to be. They were to be a "light to the nations." They were to give witness to the gracious God of all creation Who justifies sinners who will turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him.
When the descendants of Abram were dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin, it wasn't just to their own people that they gave witness to their saving God. A number of non-Jews regularly gathered with the Jews at synagogues to know and worship this God. These "God-fearers," along with many first-century Jews, were among the first people to confess Jesus as the ultimate self-revelation of God and as the Savior toward Whom all of Jewish (and world) history had been moving.
As to the other peoples displaced from their lands to make room for God's people, we can be sure that in God's eyes, their greatest "violation" was refusing to trust in Him.
The New Testament makes a point of saying that the whole human race has an inborn sense that there is a God, that He calls us to love Him and others, and that whenever people who have never been introduced to God, strive to respond to the gracious Creator they believe is there, God counts that as belief in Him. They're like the elderly Chinese man who, after being told about Jesus Christ, began to cry and say, "All my life I knew He was there, but I never knew His Name."
I think we have to conclude that these peoples knew there was a God, but refused to acknowledge Him.
4. The incident involving Sarai, Abram, and Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) may make us a bit squeamish.
Under the customs of those days, a wife could give her female slave to her husband as a concubine. Any child the slave bore would be considered that of the husband and wife. In a culture that not only regarded children as a blessing, but also barrenness as a curse from God, this solution would have seemed attractive.
In Sarai's and Abram's case though, this action is another of several incidents in which they try to take matters into their own hands, rather than trusting God. God, after all, had promised that they--though advanced in years and beyond normal child-bearing age--were going to be the parents of God's people.
Often, under these customs, the slave woman acting as a concubine to her mistress' husband would become contemptuous of the mistress. If this happened, the mistress would be in the right, again according to the custom, to deal with the slave as she wished.
5. The angel in Genesis 16:7 shouldn't be seen as a winged creature, as indicated by Hagar's initial response to him. It's only after they're into their conversation that she recognizes that she's encountering an "angel of the Lord."
The word angel, of course, means messenger. God can use human beings as messengers, as well as heavenly creatures, of course.
In the Old Testament also, the term angel of the Lord could mean something like the very presence of God Himself. This would be consistent with the theology of the Old and New Testaments which, contrary to many of the world's religions and the religiosity evident in much Christian faith and practice, sees God as immediately accessible. To use a word employed often by the theologians, the Bible sees God is immanent. Even when in awe, as Hagar is in this encounter, Biblical figures see the God revealed on the pages of the Bible as One Who deigns to have interactions with human beings without ritual incantations or the intervention of mediaries.
God, the Bible attests, has reached out to humanity "in many and various ways...but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son, Whom He has appointed heir of all things, through Whom He also created the worlds..." (Hebrews 1:1-2).
6. Hagar is asked two questions: Where have you come from? Where are you going? She only answers the first one. God promises great things for her son and his Bedouin descendants.
7. Hagar expresses amazement in Genesis 16:13-14. She's amazed first that she has seen God and lived. It was thought that if one did see God in His bright perfection, one would immediately die. She's also amazed that God has bothered to see her.
8. Genesis 17:1-8 finds God underscoring His promise to Abram thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael. Does Genesis mean to tell us that God and Abram have had no encounters all those years? I don't know. But it is clear that in those years, the promise hadn't yet been fulfilled. Thirteen years with no indication of the promise or Abraham's prayers coming to pass!
It's hard to keep believing under those circumstances, I know. I prayed for about thirteen-and-a-half years for something that I really wanted to happen and which I was convinced God would want to grant. Every day for all those years, I offered that prayer and asked God to help me to trust Him no matter what the answer was. Then, miraculously, out of the blue and at a time I wouldn't have expected, the prayer was answered...in ways better than I could have imagined! So long as what we pray for seems consonant with God's will, I assure you that it's always too early to quit praying and trusting God!
None of this is to say that Abram didn't doubt--or that I didn't doubt. But faith is built and strengthened when in the face of doubt, we ask God to help us keep following and believing anyway.
And of course, the greatest expression of faith in God is to submit to His perfect wisdom, praying, "Your will be done!"
9. Name changes often accompanied spiritual renewal in the Bible. As God instituted the rite of circumcision for Jewish males in Genesis 17:9-14, God also gave new names to Abram and Sarai. Abram, whose name meant exalted father was to change his name to Abraham, perhaps meaning father of many. Sarah is simply another form of the name Sarai and means princess.
10. In Genesis 18:1-8, Abraham seems to have an encounter similar to the one that Hagar had with the angel of the Lord in the sense that his understanding of Who he was meeting dawned on him slowly. Without knowing that he was greeting the God of all creation, Abraham displays hospitality toward Him and the two angels who accompany Him.
(By the way, Saint Augustine thought that the three persons who meet Abraham here are all God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)
Hospitality is to be a hallmark of faith, according to the Bible. Alluding to this passage, the New Testament book of Hebrews says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it" (Hebrews 13:2). Jesus says that when we serve others, we really serve Him (Matthew 25:31-46).
11. Previously, the aged Abraham laughed at God's promise that he and his post-menopausal and elderly wife would have a son and through him, become the ancestors of God's people. Sarah laughs in the wonderful incident recounted in Genesis 18:9-15.
The child born to the couple will be named Isaac, which means laughter. Sometimes, God is so amazing in His blessings and so outrageous that laughter is the first reaction.
Of course, Sarah laughs because this blessing seems too good to be true. She's skeptical and the very notion of her bearing a child seems ridiculous. I once studies this passage with a group of 70-something women. When I asked them how they would feel if they learned they were pregnant, they all laughed. It was a perfect object lesson.
12. Genesis 18:16-33 finds Abraham offering fervent prayers for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. What might have happened though if he had simply asked God not to destroy the cities? How often do we sell God short by failing to ask for what seems like the right or best things?
[Here are links to the first five installments of this series: