Read: Genesis 16:1 — 19:38
The story of Abraham brings out amazing highs and lows, from victories won with God to striking human failings.
Discussion themes and questions:
- Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16). The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a surprising one for moderns, and for two reasons. First, there isn’t the slightest hint of divine displeasure or rebuke when Abraham takes a second woman to father his child. The text is absolutely silent. Second, God takes immediate steps to comfort and console the desolate Hagar as she wandered alone in the wilderness. What do these two incidents tell us about God? Do both of them in their own way speak of a tender and compassionate God who knows all about human weakness?
- Covenant, circumcision, laughter (Genesis 17). Three notable issues surface in the story God’s renewed promise to Abraham:
- Circumcision: an earthy sign for an earthy people. It would be hard to imagine that God would give a sign like circumcision to a group of New England Puritans. And there is no evidence that he did. It proved to be a tenacious sign, however, for the descendants of Abraham. In the New Testament, the Jerusalem conference of Acts 15, coming nearly 20 years after the resurrection of Jesus was still hotly debating the issue of whether circumcision was an appropriate sign for non-Jews who wanted to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Even though the conference effectively made circumcision voluntary, Acts 16:1-2 reveals that Paul was still quite willing to work within a community which demanded circumcision. Not until Galatians 5:2-12 do we hear strong and forceful arguments from him against the practice of circumcision. At that point, it is not clear whether he opposes circumcision completely or only when it slips in as an apparent attempt to win favor from God. How does the church negotiate changes in the meaning and usefulness of God-given symbols? What are the guidelines and where do we find them? The OT gives no clue that circumcision would ever pass away. But for Christians that change was eventually made.
- Great gaps between conversations. Because Abraham’s conversations with God are such significant ones, it is easy to overlook the fact that they typically were few and far between. There may have been other incidents not recorded in the Bible. But of the ones recorded in the Bible, they are indeed rare. After Ishmael was born, for example, God’s next visit with Abraham didn’t come for another 13 years. Imagine Abraham’s thoughts during those intervening years: How did God view Ishmael? Was he perhaps the child of promise? In our walk with God today, should we expect such gaps in our “direct” contact with God? Should we expect direct contact (Abraham style) with God at all? Maybe the book of Job is more like our situation: God talks about us rather than to us — at least for a long time. And when God does appear, we melt, we repent in sackcloth and ashes.
- The man of God laughs. When God told Abraham that Sarah would be the mother of the promised child, Abraham broke out in laughter. The account in Genesis suggests that he had convinced himself that Ishmael was the promised son. No, said God. Sarah will be the mother and you will name him “He laughs,” the meaning of the name Isaac. What are we to make of a man of God who laughs at God’s promises? Does God honor the heartfelt wishes of the agnostic who really wants God’s promises to be true, but can’t help but break out into spontaneous laughter at the thought?
- The promise once more; conversations over Sodom (Genesis 18). Now it was Sarah’s turn to laugh and she did. But that did not deter the fulfillment of the promise to these two incredulous old people. Those other features in this chapter are notable:
- Yahweh himself shows up. In spite of certain biblical passages which suggest that humans cannot see God and live (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), the book of Genesis includes a striking number of examples of Yahweh himself showing up for lunch and/or conversations. Such appearances start in the Garden where God confronted Adam and Eve in person, yet they did not die. Even Hagar, who seems to have been addressed by the “angel of Yawheh” (Gen. 16:7-13), “named the LORD who had spoken with her” the “God of Seeing.” As translated in the NRSV, her response came in the form of a question: “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen. 16:13). In Genesis 18, Yahweh himself comes to hear Sarah laugh and Yahweh himself stays by so that Abraham can confront him over the plan to destroy Sodom. The question for us is: Is there any hope that we could actually see God and live to tell the tale? Hagar was amazed that she had survived; Jacob was too after his wrestling match at the Jabbok (Gen. 32:30). But what about us today?
- Confrontation over Sodom in the name of justice. The dialogue over the fate of Sodom is one of the most astonishing human/divine encounters in Scripture. “You can’t do that,” exclaims Abraham to the very face of Yahweh. “You’re the Judge of all the earth!” Abraham’s concern was over the fate of the innocent if the wicked were to be destroyed. Remarkably, Yahweh agreed to save the entire wicked city of just ten good people could be found in it. Is the freedom to “challenge” God one that belongs to each of us? Or is it only for special friends of God?
- Lot in Sodom, Escape, Moab and Ammon (Genesis 19). If one could put a good title over this chapter it could be “God remembers Abraham,” to borrow the words of Genesis 19:29. There weren’t anywhere near ten good people in Sodom. Even though God’s messengers delivered three people from the city, one could question whether or not they would have been numbered among the “righteous.” And the concluding words of the chapter state that Lot was rescued because God remembered Abraham. O the power of a godfearing man of faith…
Note: The story of Lot’s daughters seducing their father and giving birth to Moab and Ammon does suggest at least one ameliorating element that could soften some of our horror at the story. First, the motivating factor doesn’t seem to have been raw lust, but rather a desire to perpetuate the human family on earth. From all they could see from their cave, they might have thought that they were the only survivors on earth. So they took steps to preserve the human family. And they did so in a way that preserved a crucial aspect of their father’s integrity: they got him drunk so that he was not simply a victim of his own sexual desire. The story is not a pretty one; but perhaps it is less evil than it would appear at first glance.