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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 30 - The Story of Abraham Part II (Genesis 15-17)

As we enter into this part of the saga of Abraham, there are three things in this study that will be addressed:

1.  Frequent reaffirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant by God Himself
2.  The issue of polygamy
3.  The subject of circumcision

Chapter 15 opens with the reaffirmation of God's covenant with Abraham, and one of the first things we notice is that a part of the covenant God wants to emphasize to Abraham is encouragement.  Waiting on God, even for us in this day and age, can be a frustrating experience.  We know what God promises us, yet we often forget that these things come to pass in His perfect timing, and not ours.  That is one reason why the important "gateway petition" of the Our Father, "Thy will be done," is so important.  God's will is perfect, and although we may get impatient and want all the perks now, God knows the right timing for everything and we just need to trust Him for it.  And, that leads me into a small tangent before the lesson continues.

Recently, one of my dear friends has been going through some issues with his marriage, and as I consider this guy almost like a brother, I wanted to be as supportive of him as possible.  However, he is also one of these guys who seems to think that the words of some TV preacher mean something, and in his desperation he was going off in some weird areas - he was going to "speak positive things" and also somehow got it in his head that if he just spoke in tongues more, his prayer might be more effective.  This is crap - excuse the blatant theological term! - that is often spouted by these TV hacks which also sets unrealistic expectations for those who take them seriously.  To begin, tongues and the gift that utilizes it are in no way associated with effective results in prayers, and you don't even read that from Scripture - a separate study is warranted on spiritual gifts at some point in the future, but suffice to say when tongues is mentioned in Scripture, it is a gift utilized for two purposes - one is for evangelism, and the other is for edification of the Church.  It is never some sort of merit system for having your prayers answered quicker, etc.  To use tongues in that manner, as well as the so-called "positive confession" nonsense, is actually tantamount to heresy, in it reduces faith and devotion to some sort of manipulative magic show.  This is why, when going through something like this and learning to "wait upon the Lord," it is important to first seek out God's will.   If we do that, God will order things in His perfect timing, and it fosters growth and trust within us.  This lesson though is a relevant one to all ages, and in Genesis 15 we see Abraham's own impatience attempting to "help God out" in the plan, and there are two mistakes Abraham makes in this lesson.

First, given Abraham's advanced age (not to mention Sarah's!) Abraham was of the mistaken notion that one of his beloved servants, Eliezar of Damascus, was to be his heir.  In verse 2, we see Abraham's impatience getting the best of him when he says, "Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus?"  But, in verse 4, God responds to this by saying, "This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir."  In other words, Abraham would have a biological son.  In verse 6, Abraham is finally put to ease about this and accepts God's word for it.  That being readied, God now wants to seal the covenant with a ceremonial demonstration.

"Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.  So shall your descendants be." Genesis 15:5

Liturgical worship is intrinsic to religious life, and it is sort of hot-wired into our being despite how some try to ignore or deny it.  We are meant to participate in our worship of God in a way that involves symbolism and ceremony, as it brings to life the reality of the faith we profess.  God did this with His people throughout the Old Testament, and He continues it in the Church today.  After God tells Abraham again that his descendants shall be as numerous as the stars (this symbolizing spiritual descendants, namely the Church). God also promises Abraham a substantial land grant, and then He seals the deal by directing Abraham to do what is a "covenant sacrifice."  In the passage beginning with verse 9 and going through verse 18, this sacrifice is described in detail, and I will attempt to summarize it now.

In verse 9, God instructs Abraham to get the following animals:

1. A three-year-old heifer
2. A three-year-old goat
3. A three-year-old ram
4. a turtledove
5. a pigeon

There is a significance in the choice of these animals, as each carried its own symbolism, and together they provided a symbolic detail of the covenant God was about to finalize with Abraham.  In  verse 10, Abraham brings these animals to a certain place, and each of the bigger animals is cut down the middle except the two birds.   The larger halves of the carcasses were placed opposite each other, and a trench was dug between them to catch the draining blood and direct it back into the earth.  This was a covenant sacrifice, and when something was done like this, it served a contractual purpose in that both parties had obligations and benefits of the covenant contract.  If this were done between two men sealing a contract, both parties would be required to walk a path in between these carcass halves, and then a portion of them would be consumed together in a meal.   In this case though, the covenant was between Abraham and God, and although again Abraham had to wait upon God's arrival to the ceremony, which he did by chasing away the buzzards that wanted a go with the carcasses, eventually God does show up.  Before that happens though, night falls, and Abraham falls into a deep sleep, and apparently something pretty significant is happening as in verse 10 it says that "horror and great darkness" fell upon Abraham.  At this point, God speaks and in verses 13-16, there is an interlude to the story as God prophesies a coming bondage of Abraham's descendants in a foreign land for 400 years (this is a foreshadow of the Exodus later) but would return with great wealth.  Abraham is told that he would die peacefully and be buried in the land.  We also notice something interesting in verse 16 - God tells Abraham that the "iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete," and there are two things about this as well which are worth noting.  The Amorites were believed to be giants descended from Noah's son Ham who also had Nephilim DNA that carried over somehow from the antediluvian world.  Some centuries later, the Israelites (Abraham's descendants) would have many battles with them before finally defeating them, and this alludes as well to Genesis 3:15.  God's telling of this to Abraham sort of acts as a prelude to the covenant ceremony, which happens in verse 17 when God appears as a "pillar of fire" (another imagery we see later) and consumes the carcasses by passing between them.  At some point, Abraham had possibly already done his "passing through," and thus not much else is mentioned.   This action seals the Abrahamic covenant, and God again promises the grant of land that would take over the realms of many of Canaan's wicked descendants.  It is really a powerful image when seen in its true form, and it demonstrates that God wants us to enter covenant with Him as not mere servants, but as family - God in essence was performing an act with Abraham that would prefigure the baptismal covenant later.

The second part of this lesson entails Genesis 16, and we are introduced to the character of Hagar here.  If you will remember back in Genesis 12, Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt for a season to escape a bad drought, and while there they obviously had acquired servants, and Hagar was one of those.  Hagar appears to have been the maidservant of Sarah personally, and much like Abraham's dumb mistake of trying to name Eliazar as his heir, Sarah too thought she could "help God out" a little by first of all acknowledging that having a baby herself was naturally out of the question.  So, to try to "figure out" the plan, Sarah instituted a plan of her own - she instructed Abraham to have a son with her maidservant Hagar, and as we can see, this would cause many problems for generations to come.  

It is at this point I want to address the subject of polygamy a little.   Over the past several months, I have gotten into watching a series on A & E Network called Escaping Polygamy, in which a group of young ladies who themselves have escaped a particular Mormon Fundamentalist cult called the Kingston Clan (or "The Order") several years earlier have made an important mission of helping other abused people get out of this and other such cults.   One lady that is not on the program but is often consulted due to her own experience with the Kingston Clan is a devoutly Christian radio/TV program host by the name of Doris Hanson, who heads a ministry called Shield and Refuge in the Salt Lake Valley that reaches out to victims of polygamous cults with the love of the true Jesus, and she has also done commendable work.  Doris also wrote a brief but excellent guide on this subject called Is Polygamy Biblical (Brigham City, UT:  Living Hope Ministries, 2007) that I would highly recommend for any Bible study or even basic apologetics regarding a refutation of such practices.  The one thing Doris notes - and is very correct about - in this book is that although God tolerated polygamous situations in the earliest days of human history, it was never His ideal for man to have plural wives.  And, although God tolerated even righteous men having occasional polygamous households in the Old Testament, it is also evident that often a polygamous arrangement ended in disaster or some other problems, and this story of Hagar here is one of those.  As Doris points out on page 12 of her text, God's ideal for marriage has always been one man and one woman - no more, no less.   Marriage is of course both sacramental and covenantal as well, and that is why only a man and a woman in a monogamous union can be considered to be ordained by God.  Again though, often flawed human reasoning can cause issues, and we see that in this situation in particular with Sarah.  Sarah and Abraham both tend to be impatient regarding the fulfillment of God's plans, and as a result they both tended to take things into their own hands in order to speed up the process.   The lesson which is very relevant to us today in this is that when we fail to wait on God and start scheming and acting on our own (even if it is God's plan), it never ends well.   Therefore, God cannot take blame or credit for what Abraham is about to do with Sarah's maidservant Hagar, as it was Sarah, not God, who initiated that action.   It is also worth noting that God never acknowledges Hagar as a legitimate wife to Abraham, as only Sarah is Abraham's wife.   The only other time Abraham takes a wife is much later in the story after Sarah dies and he marries Keturah, and through her he fathers the Midianite nation.  

It doesn't take long either for the fruit of this mistake to manifest itself, as Sarah becomes quite jealous of Hagar's union with Abraham that produces a child. Hagar then begins to despise and mock Sarah's barrenness, and this makes Sarah even more ticked off!   So, on Sarah's orders, Hagar is kicked out of the house and is forced to flee.   She flees to the desert, and while out there we see a beautiful demonstration of God's loving mercy extended to her as she is resting - the "Angel of the Lord" (which many Church Fathers saw as Jesus Himself) appears to her, and they have a conversation.  First, the "Angel" (Christ) asks her where she is going in verse 8, and Hagar replies in verse 9 that she is fleeing from Sarah.  The "Angel" tells Hagar that she has to return, and Hagar is encouraged when the "Angel" promises that Hagar's son will be a great nation as well.   And, that discussion leads to Hagar receiving a prophecy herself.

First, the name Hagar simply means "immigrant," and this defines her status in Sarah's house.  The nation promised to her through her son has several details, and they include the following:

1.  The nation's people cannot be counted.
2.  Hagar is to call her son Ishmael, meaning "God hears."
a.  Ishmael will be a "rustic man," meaning he will be outdoorsy and rugged.
b.  In verse 12, he is to be a "wild man," whose "hand shall be against every man and every man's hand against him."  This means that he will father a warlike nation that will thrive on conflict.
c.  He will also dwell in the presence of all his brethren - this comes to pass in history as well, as many of Ishmael's descendants today are actually Arab Bedouin tribesmen who lead a nomadic existence. 
3.   Please keep in mind as well that this is by no means a curse on Ishmael at all, but rather just a revelation to Hagar of what her son's personality would be like, for good or for bad.

At the conclusion of all this, Hagar names the place where this revelation is given her a name that translates as "You are the God who sees me," which this passage records as being located between the communities of Kadesh and Bared.  Hagar then returns, bears her son Ishmael, and at the time of Ishmael's birth Abraham is 86 years old.  

There is a typological lesson in this story that St. Paul the Apostle picks up on in Galatians 4:24-31.  This passage, remember, is talking about the contrast between the bondwoman and the freewoman, and the lesson is that the bondwoman gives birth through the flesh, but the freewoman through promise.   This ties into other typologies in Scripture, such as the Sinai Covenant of Moses that gave birth to the Law, which the New Testament says imposes bondage - that symbolism is also seen in the Creation narrative in the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil (Mt. Zion, the Temple, etc.).  By contrast, Jerusalem (Mt. Calvary) gives birth as a freewoman to liberty, and that symbolism is seen in the Tree of Life.  The vital lesson here is that when we try to birth things of our own endeavor, it often causes a bondage in our lives that bears repercussions for generations, but when we trust God, He controls the outcome and it is good for us.  And, oddly, this then leads into the rite of Circumcision we see in Genesis 17.

Circumcision is not a pleasant subject, especially for the man.  However, it is a natural act of faith that sealed a supernatural covenant, and Abraham is one of the first God commands to do this.  In verses 1-8 of Chapter 17, there is first a name change - Abram ("exalted father") becomes Abraham ("father of many nations").   God again promises Abraham that his seed will be multiplied exceedingly, and that he would be a father of nations from whom kings would descend.  This covenant though is not just with Abraham, but also with his seed, and is an everlasting covenant.  As the foreskin of the man's genitalia is a symbol of a man's ability to procreate, the removal of it is significant in that it symbolizes a cleansing and freeing of the seed to come forth and multiply without hindrance.  And, that is why God chose initially to do it this way.   As we will see momentarily however, this rite was also a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant instituted later.  In addition to multiplying Abraham's seed and changing his name to reflect the same, the land is then given to Abraham and his descendants.  

God has now given the promise, and what Abraham needs to do now is to perform the circumcision on all male descendants and those who are of his household 8 days after birth, a ceremony called today a bris in current Jewish practice.  Anyone who fails to be circumcised is in danger of breaking the covenant.  In addition at this point to changing Abraham's name, he also changes Sarah's - she is no longer to be called Sarai, which means "quarrelsome," but rather Sarah, meaning "princess."  God then again promises Abraham a biological son, but in his own limited faith and due to Sarah's advanced age he laughs.   Therefore, Abraham attempts again to make Ishmael the heir, but God rejects the idea quickly.   God specifically told Abraham that Sarah is to bear the heir, and now the heir has a name, Isaac ("laughter") and it will be with Isaac that this covenant will be established.  God is not going to forget Ishmael however, and Ishmael is to be blessed with being the father of his own great nation.  After all of this is established, Abraham obeys God's command and circumcises his entire household - at this point, Abraham is 97 years of age, and Ishmael is only 13. 

In concluding this lesson, the typology of circumcision will be discussed briefly.  As mentioned, circumcision prefigures baptism, and this is fulfilled by Christ Himself in Luke 2:21, and it also means that the physical circumcision rite doesn't apply to Gentile believers, per the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, as well as in Romans 4:9-7.   In the early days of the Church, there was a dispute among converts of Jewish heritage and those of Gentile heritage in that the Jewish Christians wanted to incorporate Mosaic law into the teaching of the Church. Some of these people (later called Judaizers) even went as far as to say circumcision is a condition of salvation, which the Church clearly has never taught and neither did Jesus.  Jesus, as a matter of fact, pointed toward a "greater circumcision" of the heart (Romans 2:29) and stressed the priority of inner conversion over outward piety.  The symbol of the "greater circumcision" was seen in the sacrament of Baptism, and as an outward sign, baptism points to an inward grace and thus has no merit by itself.  Circumcision likewise prefigured baptism in a similar (and much more painful!) way, but the "greater circumcision" of the heart that Jesus and the Apostles taught of is a "circumcision made without hands" (Colossians 2:11).  Therefore, again, it is the same Covenant but fulfilled in the Incarnation and Atonement of Christ.

While circumcision no longer has much soteriological value, there are still valuable health benefits to the practice, and I myself can testify to that as the procedure saved me from worse problems in my early adulthood.  However, anything God commands is beneficial, even if not in a salvific sense.   The story of Abraham picks up from there next time in Chapter 18.