Read: Genesis 20:1 – 25:10
The last years of Abraham’s life are a collage of failures, triumphs, and tragedies. He fails the test of honesty with Abimelech; he passes the test of loyalty on Mt. Moriah; he loses the battle for compassion with Hagar and Ishmael; and he assures a hopeful future by finding a wife for Isaac.
Discussion Themes and Questions:
- Lies once again: Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20). Critics of the book of Genesis have noted the three similar incidents involving the beautiful wife at risk: Sarah and Pharaoh (Genesis 12), Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20), and Rebekah and Abimelech (Genesis 26). Unlike the history of Israel’s kings where we have two sources, often parallel, for Genesis we only the one source. A comparison of the parallel sources where they do exist (i.e. Samuel-Kings and Chronicles; the Gospels), make it clear that very similar stories can in fact be included in Scripture. They also make it clear that chronology is not always tidy in the historical narrative. The most curious feature of the Sarah and Abimelech account is the fact that the narrative flow puts this incident in the time of Sarah’s old age. Now she may still have been a stunning beauty queen in her old age. But the more likely explanation is that the chronology has somehow gotten garbled along the way. And once that happens, there is no way to sort things out. But from the standpoint of the characters involved, what are we to make of Abraham’s double failure of disclosure? What does this do to our estimate of him as a man of faith? Is it possible that some may take his example as license? What should be the “ideal” response to the failures of great saints in Scripture?
- Birth of Isaac, expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21). Judged by our standards of right and wrong, how would we assess Abraham’s sense of justice and compassion in sending Hagar away? However we view Abraham, it is striking that God again meets Hagar in her time of bitterness. Again the chronology is problematic. The narrative sounds as though Ishmael is an infant, when he is actually a teenager.
- Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Genesis 22). The story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah is potentially one of the most troubling in Scripture. The following points may be worth discussing:
- No argument from Abraham. In contrast with Abraham’s bold confrontation with God over the destruction of Sodom, Abraham simply obeys God’s command to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him there. Could one assume that Abraham did not consider child sacrifice to be inconsistent with the worship of Yahweh, just as he did not consider it wrong to take a second wife?
- Child sacrifice as the highest gift to the gods. There is some evidence to show that in the culture of the Ancient Near East, child sacrifice had come to be seen as the highest gift the gods. The following passages are suggestive:
- Exodus 13:11-16, the redemption provision for the first born
- 2 Kings 3:27, Moab’s king sacrifices the crown prince to appease his god
- Micah 6:6-8, in Micah’s hierarchy of sacrifices, the first born stands at the top
In short, in Abraham’s day, it would not have been seen as a moral contradiction for God to ask for the sacrifice of the first born. God’s command did, however, stand in high tension with his promise that Isaac would be the son of promise. So the element of “test” was still very much present.
- “Thou shalt not kill” was only a prohibition against first degree murder. While behind the 6th command lies the recognition that human life is incredibly valuable, in the Old Testament context it clearly had the primary focus of prohibiting murder. The provisions involved with the cities of refuge (Numbers 35) clearly show the distinction between accidental killing and premeditated killing. Accepted forms of killing, indeed ones actually mandated by God, include civil punishment (every one of the 10 commandments except the 10th carried the death penalty in the additional Mosaic legislation), the holy war, and self-defense. Thus it is highly unlikely that anyone would consider that the 6th command was intended to prohibit child sacrifice. It was indeed prohibited in other ways, but would not have been included under the 6th command.
- Burying Sarah in the “promised” land (Genesis 23). Even though God had promised “land” to Abraham, purchasing was the only option when it came finding a place to bury Sarah. What does this story tell us about the nature of “hope”? Perhaps there is a link here with Paul: “For in hope we were saved, now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8:24-25?)
- Finding Rebekah (Genesis 24). Three issues, of radically different order of magnitude, present themselves in the story of Rebekah:
- Providence. To what extent can we expect the kind of providential guidance which Eliezer sensed when he arrived in Nahor?
- Marriage within the family. While we may not be tempted to marry close relatives as the patriarchs did, the questions of common heritage, common faith, and shared values are concerns which we would share. How does this story inform the marital customs of believers today?
- Body piercing. Clearly, Rebekah had not heard of the Puritan prohibition of jewelry. To what extent could this story “help” in determining the level of adaptation when Christians find themselves in an alien culture?
- Isaac over the sons of the “concubines.” When it came to matters of inheritance, clearly Isaac was in a category by himself. This “specialness” of the chosen contrasts with the other value cherished by freedom loving people: equality and justice. How do believers balance those two concerns?