Thursday, August 25, 2005

Random Stuff from Our Genesis Study, Part 7

[Tuesdays with Markie is a weekly Bible study I convene for our congregation. Currently, we're studying the Old Testament book of Genesis. Below this latest installment, you can find links to the six previous parts of the series of blog posts.]

Genesis 19, 20, 21

1. Genesis 19 tells what happened when the two angels who accompanied God for his visit with Abraham and Sarah at Mamre, went on to Sodom, the place where Abraham's relative, Lot, and his family had settled.

2. It's interesting, in fact, to compare and contrast the narrative of the two events (see: Genesis 18:1-15 and Genesis 19:1-11). Consider the following...

Hospitality: The hospitality afforded by Abraham and Sarah is complete and appropriate. But even ancient Israelites would have deemed Lot's offer of his virgin daughters to the Sodomites who want to have sex with the messengers from God, as a warped version of hospitality. (The offer is particularly ironic in light of how their virginity will be ended later.)

Visitation: In the first visitation, the guests are God and two angels. In the second, the two messengers--referred to as men--are those angels.

The Point: In the first, a promise is brought to Abraham and Sarah. In the second, judgment is brought to Lot and his family. In both cases, the righteous actions of God in the life of human beings is shown.

This underscores something that I have tried to emphasize repeatedly in the past. There is a false notion current among many that the two sections of the Bible--the Old Testament and the New Testament--somehow portray two different versions of God. In this view, the Old Testament God is seen as one of judgment and the New Testament God is seen as one of grace and promise. But the simple fact is that God, in both Old and New Testament, is a God of judgment and promise, of law and grace. God desires for all people to turn from sin and receive forgiveness, hope, and life. But God also allows the unrepentant to live, eternally, with their choice to ignore Him.

Miracle: In Genesis 18, God reiterates the promise that the elderly, post-menopausal Abraham and Sarah are going to be gifted a child through whom they will become ancestors of a great nation. In Genesis 19, you see a miracle: the deliverance of Lot from those who would rape or kill him.

Reaction of laughter: Sarah laughs that she will become a mother at her advanced age. Lot's prospective sons-in-law think that Lot is joking with them about the impending destruction of Sodom.

A few years ago, a cynical and bitter elderly woman asked me, "Mark, what is the point of our lives?" It was clear that the question wasn't posed with a real desire to uncover an answer. She was a person who believed that there was no answer, that all of life was a futile exercise.

I told her that we were made in love by God and He made us for a relationship of love with Him and others. When I said this, she nearly burst out in a guffaw and clearly disdained my answer. This, I think, was akin to the reactions given God's plans in these two accounts. The woman, like Sarah and the prospective sons-in-law, was so ingrained in the ways of the world--so convinced that this world was all that there was to life in this universe--that she found it difficult to believe God could act to change things or give her life meaning. Her laughter was sad!

3. The narrative in Genesis 19 has, I believe, a somewhat limited application to the debate over homosexuality today. The men in Sodom were not as interested in having sex with Lot's guests as a homoerotic act as they were in dominating them. Their aim was rape, wrong in either a homosexual or heterosexual context.

But it does bear some relevance to the contemporary discussions within the Church. (It bears, I believe no relevance to public policy discussions.) The German Biblical commentator, Gerhard von Rad, on whose work I am heavily dependent in my preparations for these studies points out that in other places in the Old Testament, Sodom is remembered for various acts and attitudes of decadence. Isaiah 1:10 and 3:9 cite the city's barbaric justice. Ezekiel mentions its "pride, surfeit of food, and prosperous ease," indictments which might well sting us in the United States if we care to pay heed to them (Ezekiel 16:49). And, says von Rad, "Jeremiah speaks of adultery, lying, and unwillingness to repent" (Jeremiah 23:14).

In other words, the Sodomite men's desires for sex with Lot's male visitors is an act of selfishness that goes with a society long bent on living life untethered from the standards of respect and love for God. Sodom, in its ways, was like Babel, worshiping itself and its own power and equally liable to judgment.

4. Grace, you know, is the Biblical word that describes God's undeserved charity toward us. Lot, however fitfully and inconsistently, believed in God and God had determined that while the whole world was crying out against Sodom--just as the murdered Abel's blood had once cried out to God against his brother, Cain--He would nonetheless save Lot and His family if they would let Him save them.

But in Genesis 19:15-26, we see the faith of Lot and his family undergoing a severe test. It's one they only partially pass and where they fail, it has tragic consequences. "Get out of here!," God's messengers tell them. As we've already noted, the men engaged to Lot's daughters laugh and stay in the city. Lot himself hesitates to leave and as the men pull him and his family members away, he babbles in terror, seemingly afraid not only to leave this adopted hometown (a place whose native citizens still regard him as an unwanted foreigner), but also not wanting to go to the hills to which the men had directed him. It's another sign of God's grace that when Lot asks the men to allow him and his family to go to the tiny town of Zoar, instead of to the hills, his request is granted.

Of course, Lot's hesitation to leave Sodom is apparently not as great as that of his wife. Although solemnly warned by the men sent from God not to look back at the city they're going to destroy, Lot's wife does just that and is turned into a pillar of salt. (There are massive salt deposits in this area today.)

Why is this? Some years before, Lot had traveled with his relative Abraham as he, his wife, their servants, and all their livestock undertook a mysterious journey with an unknown ultimate destination.

All they knew when they left Ur of the Chaldeans, in what is probably modern-day Iraq, was that God wanted them to get going, to not be tied to this place, but to be tied to God. For Lot, the journey was easy at first. Like a child going with his parent, he was simply part of his relative's entourage.

But as he matured and asserted his indepedence and later, took a fertile piece of land in Canaan as his own, Lot and his family became less like nomads following where God took them than established residents of a particular place. They had forgotten, as we are apt to forget as we live this fleeting life, not to fall too much in love with the stuff this planet has to offer. They forgot to be ready to pick up stakes and move on without notice. They were more in love with Sodom and the ease and comforts of this life than they were with God. And so, Lot hesitated to leave and his wife turned back to see what had become their hometown.

This has direct application for us. There's an old song that the people of my former congregation loved to sing: I am but a stranger here, heaven is my home. The New Testament tells us that followers of Jesus Christ are sojourners and aliens in this world. Our real home is in the new heaven and the earth with God. We're called to be "in, but not of" this world. The call of a Christian isn't to look back, except as a means of learning about our present and our future; our call is to look up and out and ahead: up to God, out to our neighbors, and ahead to the future as the source of our identity and purpose each day. The call of the Christian too, is to be ready, by living in a lifestyle that Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal," to "pick up stakes" and leave this world any time.

5. The instability of Lot's and his daughters' faith is seen in the final time any part of his story is told in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:30-38). Previously anxious to escape to Zoar, he now takes his daughters to live in a cave.

Afraid that they will never have children, his daughters hatch a scheme to get their father drunk and on succeeding nights, have sex with him to conceive children. Their children, according to this passage, become the ancestors of two nations that come to hate God's people, Israel.

Often, we may become impatient with God and inclined to take matters into our own hands. If we will trust God and familiarize ourselves with His Word in the Bible, He will give us a sense of when to act and when to wait. Lot's daughters impatience isn't the only time people of faith have done things that they shouldn't have done, as we've already seen in Genesis. (Sadly, I've seen it plenty of times in my own life of faith!)

6. Genesis 20:1 presents Abraham is an antitype of Lot: Unlike Lot, too enamored of his adopted city, Abraham moves on. That is an act of faith.

But like Lot, he's inclined to take matters into his own hands and fails to remember a lesson he'd once seemingly learned. Abraham says that his wife is his sister, a half-truth since she is his half-sister. The local king, Abimelech, takes Sarah into his wife to be his concubine, but hasn't had sex with her when God tells him to not touch her; she is Abraham's wife.

Now, an aside: Sarah is really old here and yet Abraham is afraid that people will kill him to get to her because she's such a beautiful woman. What's up with this? Several possible explanations: (1) This may be a narrative of something that happened earlier which later editors simply stuck in here; (2) If you are of a more conservative bent, you might be inclined to think that in an era in which human beings seemed to live longer, one would assume that the aging process would evidence itself differently. Frankly, I don't think it's terribly important to solve this mystery. Of greater interest are these two points:
(1) In spite of God's promises, Abraham is afraid that he won't live to become the father of a great nation;

(2) Even a giant of faith has his doubts and tries to push God along.
7. Given all the adventures, journeying, and close-calls which Genesis has shown coming Abraham's and Sarah's way, the narrative of the fulfillment of the promise in the birth of their son, Isaac, is amazingly understated. Isaac, which means Laughter, is an appropriate name.

8. Genesis 21:8-21 shows Sarah's continued insecurity when she looks at Ishmael, the son born to Abraham through Sarah's servant, Hagar and Abraham's weakness in not standing up for his son and his acquiescence to Sarah's demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.

But, in an event that foreshadows something that will happen in Genesis 22, we also see God's graciousness and goodness, as He provides for the well-being of the boy and his mother.

9. Genesis 21:22-34 simply shows how powerful and how like a king Abraham has become.

[Here are links to the previous installments in this series:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6]

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