Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Gen. 18 shows us Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent near a small tree called a terebinth at Mamre. It is just getting to the hot part of the day, when three strangers appear. Abraham runs over to them and begs them to accept hospitality from him. He enlists Sarah’s help and arranges for meat and cheese to be offered. While they are eating, they ask where his wife is and one of them says “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son” (10). Sarah, inside the tent laughs to herself for she is well beyond child-bearing age and knows it. But the speaker, now identified as “the Lord” repeats to Abraham what she has only said to herself. Sarah tries to deny she laughed, but of course we all know that Sarah is having trouble really believing that this promise will ever be brought to pass—that is why she resorted to the scheme with Hagar. The laughter here (and earlier when Abraham himself laughs at the idea he might have a child at the age of 100 is connected with the name Isaac - "God smiles" in Hebrew).
The three men then set out from there and Abraham goes with them a ways toward Sodom. The voice changes back and forth from that of the men (or one of the men) to that of YHWH himself (9 and 13) and later again at verses 16 and 17. It is clear that they are to be seen as His voice. He does tell him he plans to destroy Sodom. This is an interesting passage both for its content and the point of view it pretends to speak from. Here the writer presents to us the inner workings of the Lord’s mind concerning not only Abraham, but the whole plan of the future he has initiated through Abraham. The conferring of the redemption promises on Abraham bring him into relationship with God in such a way that God feels he (Abraham) has a right or need to know how God will deal with men, to understand God’s justice and even to mediate mankind’s needs to God. That this spurs Abraham to intercede for Sodom flows naturally from God’s including him in the divine reflection, which ultimately affects the action God takes. There is an inter-action between the divine intention and man’s response to that intention which ultimately shapes what happens, what God puts into effect. Also interesting is the point that God is going to punish Sodom because he is responding to an outcry against their wickedness. In all this, the inter-involvement and interplay between God and man, not simply God’s omniscience and omnipotence, seem to be that which shapes events.
Abraham pleads with God not to destroy the innocent with the guilty. Noah didn’t do this (presuming that there were other innocent destroyed in the flood), but Abraham, like Moses and Jesus after him will take the part of man at least to a point and intercede for us. In a sense this makes Abraham God’s first “prophet.” The Lord finally does agree to spare Sodom if ten righteous men can be found there, and perhaps would have gone further, but Abraham does not presume to push Him beyond ten.
Gen. 19 - Two angel messengers are entertained by Lot whose hospitality is implicitly praised. The men of the town beat at his door demanding that he turn them over to them so they can “abuse” them –“be intimate with them” [Tanakh, 5]. There is virtually no discussion or follow-up on the particular evil implied. The whole focus is on the fact that destruction will come, but the virtuous Lot and those he loves are given a path to follow to avoid the destruction.
Lot’s daughters seem to be affected by the sexual decadence of the times in their own plot to sleep with their father. The older daughter gives birth to Moah, the younger one to Ben-ammi (the Ammonites). The note suggests it is a gibe at Israel’s enemies to link them in this way with such conduct.
Gen. 20 - A doublet of 12:10, but involving not the king of Egypt but the King of Gerar, a kingdom south of Gaza, Abimelech. Abimelech has a dream from God revealing the truth of what Abraham is doing and he confronts Abraham. The idea of God’s prophets being favored and being people who can intercede with God for us is reinforced here (7). Abraham learns that there is fear and respect for God outside his own people, so at Abraham’s intercession, God does lift the sanction he had imposed on them for their inadvertent violation of his will.
Gen. 21 - Abraham, now 100, finally has his son Isaac (meaning ‘God smiled,’ or laughed). Sarah is also very old. Ishmael who, by Chapter 16 reckoning would be 15 years old here is pictured as still a child (14)—on his mother’s shoulder. At Sarah’s request, they are banished (again?). God promises Abraham to look after them and make a nation of Ishmael as well. This is a kind of an echo or shadow of the promise to Abraham. In the desert Hagar is reassured personally by an angel. They go to the wilderness of Paran (on the Sinai Peninsula south of the Negev,) and there Hagar gets a wife for her son from Egypt -- remember Hagar might be Egyptian as well.
Abimelech and Abraham make a covenant and settle a dispute over a well at Beersheba, just east of Gerar.
Gen. 22 - God puts Abraham to the test at Moriah (said to be where Jerusalem would later be built). Told to offer up his son as a sacrifice, Abraham obeys. Even on the way, Abraham says “God himself will provide the lamb. . .” (a prophecy of Christ?), and of course he does—not only ultimately but here proximately. God is looking only for Abraham’s willingness to obey and his recognition that the son he has is also a gift, something that the Lord has provided, not anything really belonging to him. What strikes me here is that having been asked to renounce the past (his ancient clan, the traditions and lands of his father in Ur), he is now asked to renounce the future (or at least any personal goal he might have for the future). He is to live in the relationship of faith only, not in any notion of what faith may get him.
Verse 20 traces the genealogy of Abraham’s brother Nahor to trace the relationship of Rebecca to Isaac. One of Nahor’s sons, Bethuel is Rebecca’s father. The offspring of Nahor’s relationship with a concubine—Reumah—are also introduced.
Gen. 23 - Sarah dies at age 127 and is buried at Machpelah (Hebron). The owner of the site tries hard to give it to Abraham, but he finally tells Abraham that it is worth 400 shekels and Abraham pays that amount. The spot is the first land Abraham takes possession of in “the promised land.” It is interesting to me that the promise - the promised heir and the first land right - comes concretely through Sarah — despite the fact that she is depicted as far from perfect in her relationship to God. The faithfulness comes from Abraham.
Questions to Consider:
- What is the importance of Abraham’s intercession for some of those who live in Sodom? Compare him with Noah.
- Would you describe the God of this narrative as “omniscient” or “omnipotent”?
- The story in this chapter is often cited as one of those passages that prove God condemns homosexuality, and is the foundation of the term “sodomy” – what are your thoughts?
- Moriah is said to be where the city of Jerusalem would later be built. What is the significance of this fact and of the story generally?
- How could Abraham reconcile this demand for him to sacrifice Isaac with the promise God has made on several occasions?
- The language in the story – where Abraham tells Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb. . .” was seen by Christians as prophetic. What are your thoughts?