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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 31 - The Story of Abraham Part III

As Abraham's story continues in the book of Genesis, it pretty much takes up the whole central portion of the book.  At this point, we have Abraham already fighting in a war to rescue his nephew Lot, who is sort of stranded in Sodom, and we now are going to be revisiting Sodom in this study, as there are some important issues to discuss.

As a point of order first, you may have noticed in many lessons of this study that many of those whom the Lord called to be holy men were not exactly perfect, and Abraham is no exception - he messes around with a servant girl and has a baby with her (per his wife's request) and he also has a bad habit as we shall see of "pimping out" Sarah to different kings as his "sister."  The flaws and imperfections of the Biblical Patriarchs are there for a reason - the focus of the story is not on them, but on God's economy.  Throughout the rest of Scripture, we see similar shortcomings in others as well, such as King David, but God's grace shows stronger despite their flaws.  The late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman was fond of saying something that has profound relevance to this, and what she said was this - God does not ask for gold vessels, and God doesn't ask for silver vessels.  What God asks for is yielded vessels.   Many of these people we read about in the Old Testament are fallible human beings who are susceptible to sin and screwups, and often do sin and screw up, but God uses them because ultimately they are yielded to Him.  If you recall our earlier study on the Lord's Prayer, you will remember that the great Roman Catholic theologian Romano Guardini proposed that the "gateway petition" to the whole prayer entailed four simple words - Thy will be done.  God wants His people to fully trust in Him and follow Him, and if we do that, even our faults will glorify Him because it reminds others that in and of ourselves we do fail, but Christ within us is everything.  This is something to keep in mind as we study Abraham's saga here.

As we are at Genesis 18 now, the opening verses contain a narrative involving a visit one day Abraham has from three enigmatic strangers.  In verse 3, Abraham recognizes that these are not just typical desert nomads stopping to ask for a drink of water, but there is something more to them.  In looking at the footnotes in my Orthodox Study Bible I use to prepare these studies, there is a note that states that the Church historically understands that at least one of these people is a typology - a prefigurement of Christ, if not literally Christ Himself.  If you read this passage, it also makes sense of parts of the Gospel we read such as the Transfiguration narrative, in which Enoch and Elijah recognized Christ when the apparition happens.  It also establishes that Jesus is co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is a clear affirmation of His deity.  We confess in the Creed every Sunday at Mass that Jesus is "begotten not made," and we also read in passages such as John 1:1 that Jesus existed from the beginning with God and indeed was God.   Therefore, narratives such as this establish that a type of salvation may have been given to the Old Testament saints that pre-dates Calvary, and if so, it establishes something.   Throughout the remainder of Genesis as a matter of fact, we will see frequent visits of an enigmatic "Angel of the Lord" to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and this is not your typical Angel - some earlier translations use the Greek word  instead of the common word  to refer to this person, and therefore when you read it, the passage would really be saying "The WORD of the Lord..." and it is an authoritative reference.  Also, when you see passages like that in Scripture, the person it refers to is speaking with an authority that no angelic being would have, and this is why the Church has affirmed that this is an early manifestation of Christ appearing to the Patriarchs.  In doing so, this also makes the Old Testament point to Christ, as it should be read anyway.  That being established, we continue the narrative.

In verse 5, the three enigmatic strangers accept Abraham's hospitality, and when we get to verse 9, they specifically ask for Sarah.  When Sarah rejoins the group for the meal, one of the strangers (the "Angel of the Lord," an early manifestation of Jesus) tells her again that she is going to have a son.   Being Sarah is an old lady at this point, this whole thing seems a little ridiculous to her, and in verse 12 it documents that she laughs for that very reason.  When she is confronted about the laughter in verse 13 however, she flatly denies it (v. 15) but the figure now called "the One" (Jesus) knows.  The lesson here is another thing we see in Scripture - God uses weird, foolish, and even downright ridiculous things to make His will happen, as I Corinthians 1:25 reminds us that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."   In verse 18 of that same chapter, we are also reminded that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."  Similarly in verse 20, we are asked the following question:  "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?"  And, the fact that God uses such means to accomplish His purposes are stated in verse 21 - "it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."  Jesus must have had His past encounter with Sarah in mind when He inspired St. Paul to write these words many centuries after the fact, and they convey a message to us today - God is not offended necessarily when we find His word to be ridiculous, because He understands how the human brain thinks sometimes.  And, He similarly was not offended by Sarah laughing at what He told her, because His plan was perfect despite the fact at this point Sarah (and probably even Abraham) could not see it in its entirety, so a bit of skepticism was only natural.  It also shows a great measure of God's mercy too, even in the Old Testament, because God did tolerate a lot from those He loved, and despite their weakness He was glorified.  And, that is the point of redemption as well - we don't glorify ourselves, but are via supernatural grace elevated, healed, and perfected in the salvation He provides us.  This process had already started with Sarah and Abraham too, when God Himself changed their names as part of His covenant promise to them.  

In verse 16, there is a shifting of gears here as the scene changes to Sodom again.  Sodom and its judgment are actually the second reason for the visit, and the head One of the three first reaffirms to Abraham the promise that He would make Abraham's descendants into a great nation which will bless all the other nations of the earth simply through its own existence (v. 18).  Then the main One of the strangers gets down to business about Sodom in verses 20-21.  It is important to note from the outset that at this point there is no talk of destroying Sodom yet, as it seemed like God was wanting to gauge the severity of Sodom's sins before acting on judgment.  But, Abraham knows his nephew Lot lives there, and he is genuinely concerned that Lot will perish.  Therefore, Abraham strikes up a negotiation to preserve Sodom so that Lot might be protected, and starting at 50 righteous people as a condition, Abraham eventually gets the strangers to agree to saving it for the sake of 10 people by the time we get to verse 32.  That being done, the next part of the passage has the three taking off for Sodom and their arrival. 

In Genesis 19:1-3, the strangers have arrived in Sodom, and Lot sees them out in the main part of town but is concerned - he knows how these Sodomite men act, and is concerned for the safety of the strangers.  So, he invites them into his house to spend the night, which they refuse to do at first as they wanted to sleep in the streets.  However, Lot persists, as he knows that would be a bad idea.  The reason is that Sodom is rife with homosexual predators who are consumed with a demonic spirit that feeds their own lusts for perversion, and later that evening this becomes evident when the men of Sodom come banging on Lot's door, wanting to claim the strangers and molest them.  It is at this point we need to address an "elephant in the room" that may prove risky, but God's truth needs to be upheld.

One of the main reasons God is punishing Sodom is because of the sin of homosexuality, and although it is "politically incorrect" these days to speak out against this behavior, as our own society as capitulated to the demands of similar "Sodomites" by forcing the "gay agenda" down America's throats, it doesn't change what God has established.  The Church has always taught that homosexual behavior is wrong, and despite what society feels, it is a sin that needs the blood of Jesus to cleanse just like so many other sins.  This is substantiated by verses in the New Testament such as Jude 7, Romans 1:18-32, and I Corinthians 6:9-11.  It is something that the late Pope St. John Paul II addressed in his 1992 encyclical Veritas Splendor, in particular Chapter III, where he notes that a secularist mentality is what often sets freedom in opposition to truth, although God endowed man with both.  Perfect freedom, the late Pontiff notes, is acquired in love, and this love is ultimately bound in the person of Jesus Christ, who is, as John 14:6 reminds us, "the Way, the Truth, and the Life, only through Whom we can come to the Father."  Worship of God must be "in spirit and in truth," (John 4:23), and as St. John Paul II notes, "Worship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the greatest foundation of freedom."  (Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor.  Sherbrooke, QC:  Editions Paulines, 1993.  p. 132).  When worship is nullified, and God is only acknowledged and not worshipped, truth is rejected and the mentality of secularism, which was defined by the late Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann as being "a negation of worship," will reject truth because it rejects the source.  When that happens, freedom then becomes corrupted because supernatural grace is absent and unable to refine it.  This is what we see in the case of Sodom in this passage as well.  God would destroy Sodom later in this passage precisely because of the level of gross perversion and the severity of iniquity (some sources even suggest that child rape, child sacrifice, and other abominations were occurring as well).   However, despite the perversion and severity we see in Sodom, all sin in reality is an offense against God, but He also extends mercy to the sincerely contrite and the penitent who are so in sincerity will always find forgiveness.

Back to the story of Sodom, Lot attempts to offset the riot outside his door by offering his virgin daughters in verse 8.  However, due to the level of perversity in these men (which was probably also demonically-driven as well) they were not exactly interested in virgin girls, and they up their demands in their frenzy for Lot to hand over his guests, or they would molest him!  Another thing we note here is that Lot is offering his virgin daughters, who ironically are also married!  We'll get back to that momentarily, but first we see the perverted masses outside trying to break down Lot's door, but the strangers pull him inside, at which point the crazed mob is struck with blindness and they disperse in confusion as a result.  This is sort of the last straw - the strangers wanted to be in Sodom to gauge the severity of the offense and what judgment would be fitting, and at this point there is no other alternative but to destroy the city.  So, the strangers tell Lot to gather his family, pack up, and be ready to leave as Sodom is about to be incinerated.  At this point, Lot tries to persuade his sons-in-law, who are natives of the city, to go with him, but they laugh him off.  There are a lot of things packed into this small detail, so we will attempt to unpack some of them now

What is believed to be the ruins of where Sodom once was.

The two guys who are Lot's sons-in-law are married to his daughters, yet in a previous verse it states Lot's daughters were virgins.  There are several things of note here.  First, the sons-in-law are themselves natives of Sodom, and by not consummating their marriages perhaps they too were involved to some degree with the vice and perversion of the city, and only wanted Lot's daughters for procreative purposes.  While that is speculation, it is also highly likely given the situation.  Also, Lot and his family were under the Abrahamic covenant to an extent, and they had an untainted bloodline, and in a strange way maybe God was protecting Lot's daughters from bearing corrupted seed with these Sodomite men. Whatever the case, the sons-in-law flatly refuse to go.  We see in this also a similar situation that Noah faced - Noah too tried to warn those around him about impending disaster, and like Lot he was laughed off.  So, as painful as it must have been for Lot, he could not violate their free will to stay there, so he made preparations to leave without them.

Early that next morning, Lot and his family escape, with added and urgent encouragement of their guests.  So, they flee to the nearby city of Zoar which, although part of the same confederation as Sodom and Gomorrah, is somehow spared from their fate.  On the way out of Sodom, they are given strict orders not to look back, and after they are moved away a safe distance, "fire and brimstone" rained from God on the cities, destroying everything in them.  Lot's wife, however, cannot resist the urge to look back, and as she does so, she is turned into a "pillar of salt."  Lot's salvation from Sodom constitutes an honoring and remembrance of God's promise to his uncle Abraham.

Lot's wife, it was mentioned, was turned into a pillar of salt, so what does that mean?   This is a passage which has been debated for many years, and the question is asked first as to if this was literal or an allegory?  I would argue that this is something that literally happened as a result of God's judgment for not listening to Him, but how did it happen?  Did God turn her supernaturally into a salt pile, or was there a natural phenomenon that God caused which did it?   The area around the Dead Sea where Sodom was believed to be located was a seismically-active area characterized by earthquakes and volcanoes.  It sets on the upper end of a tectonic plate edge called the Rift Valley, which extends from Kenya to northern Syria, and seismic activity was common as evidenced by all the tar pits and the salinity of the region.  It is not known if an active volcano was in that region at the time, but if this is the case it could provide a viable explanation as to what happened to Lot's wife.  Excavations at Pompeii and elsewhere reveal that many bodies who were inundated with ash or a pyroclastic surge from an erupting volcano are preserved and even petrified over time to where they look like salt carvings.  A combination of natural phenomena and supernatural timing could have caused this to happen to Lot's wife too while sparing Lot and his daughters as God had promised He would do.  Even today though, a tourist attraction in the Dead Sea region called "Lot's Wife" is a natural phenomenon which is actually a salt mound shaped like a person, and although it's debated as to whether or not this is actually Lot's wife, it's still interesting that such a natural occurrence is found in that very region.  Time and further wisdom from God Himself will determine its authenticity. 

What is called "Lot's Wife" near the Dead Sea today

As Lot's story continues in verse 30-37, he and his daughters settle near Zoar, and the daughters start worrying about their own situation.  I want to briefly address something before continuing the story, as it is important to understanding the text.

Incest is something that we find a lot of in the earlier chapters of Genesis, and for a time it was probably necessary to propagate the human race.  Therefore, God probably did provide a temporary exemption from its effects and the taboo we see it as today in order to allow the population to increase after the Creation and after the Flood.  However, by the time we get to Lot's situation, there is little need for it anymore, and messing around with one's immediate family was becoming something that was to be rightly discouraged.  Therefore, this passage in Genesis 19 in no way condones what Lot or his daughters do, so that is to be established from the outset.

Lot's daughters are concerned because they don't have husbands and need to propagate the family tree, and unfortunately flawed human reasoning leads them to make a bad mistake.   They get Lot drunk and then they essentially seduce him to copulate with each of them, and they each end up pregnant.  The elder daughter bears a son she names Moab (meaning "He is from my father") who will later be the progenitor of a nation of people who will end up having a love-hate relationship with Isaac's descendants.  However, ironically, a female descendant of Moab, Ruth, will also become an ancestor to the Messiah, and this proves again that God can make a bad situation work to His good. The younger daughter then bears her son, Ben-Ammi (meaning "the son of my family"), and he will become the progenitor of another ancient nation called the Ammonites - the modern Jordanian capital of Amman is named after him even today.  Although both of these nations by New Testament times had been absorbed by the Arabian tribes to the East, they unfortunately create a lot of conflict and challenge for the emerging Israelite nation later, as seen in the Judges in particular.  

Lot being seduced by his daughters

The final part of the chapter entails Abraham's dealings with a local king named Abimelech, who is said in verse 20 to rule over a city called Gerar.  Abraham acts stupidly in his dealings with this king, and in reading the story one sort of feels an empathy with Abimelech.  Like the Pharaoh earlier who actually chased Abraham out of Egypt for trying to "pimp out" Sarah as "his sister," Abraham tries this same ploy again with Abimelech for a similar reason - in his humanity, Abraham is allowing fear of his mortality to take precedence over his fear of God, and this creates a big problem.  But, God knows what is going on, and in a dream he warns Abimelech about Abraham's ruse.   Abimelech had not had any relations with Sarah, and God instructs Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham, which he dutifully does.  Understandably, Abimelech is a little upset at Abraham for what he done, and demands some sort of explanation for it.  Abraham explains himself, and as Abimelech is a very long-suffering and forgiving guy, he is merciful to Abraham and despite the stupidity on Abraham's part Abimelech still gives him permission to dwell in the region he rules, but he also makes Abraham promise to be honest in dealing with him too.   God had told Abimelech in the dream that if he returned Sarah, not only would he be healed of what essentially was a case of erectile dysfunction, but Abraham would be the one who would pray for that healing.  Abraham of course does, and the sexual disorder of Abimelech's house (he was afflicted with what appears to be ED, while his harem is afflicted with barrenness over his taking Sarah into the house) is healed and all is restored.  It would not be the last time though that Abraham would have dealings with Abimelech, but ironically although Abraham could be a real jerk to this guy, Abimelech remained a friend to him for many years to come. Abimelech in some respects is a picture of God's mercy to us - despite how much we mess up and act stupid, God still forgives and loves, and His faithfulness to us is never ending.  Of interest too is the meaning of Abimelech's name - "My father is king."  In Abimelech's story too, we see that although the beloved chosen abuse and deal crookedly with the Savior, Jesus still loved His people.  In the story of Abimelech, we also see how the "Son of the King" is longsuffering, and that gives a Christological dimension to this whole account as well.

Abraham messing with Abimelech the king.

The location of Abimelech's city of Gerar

In the next lesson, we will pick up with the fourth part of Abraham's story, as there is still a lot to cover regarding him.