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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Genesis the Book of Beginnings Part 32 - The Story of Abraham Part IV

As the story of Abraham's life continues, we are now up to Genesis 21, and in the three chapters (21-23) that this study will be discussing there is a lot going on.  We have the birth of Isaac happening to kick it off, and the death of Sarah book-ending the end.  We will now begin the study by starting in chapter 21.

Isaac is born and names in verse 3 of Chapter 21, and if you recall the earlier studies the reason he is named "Isaac" was due to the incredulous response of Sarah when she was told she would give birth to him - she laughed hysterically, as it was unthinkable at her age to give birth to a baby(note verse 6)!   But, God did as He promised, and Isaac was conceived, and also delivered as a healthy, normal baby boy.  Abraham, the proud dad, was 100 at the time of Isaac's birth, and Sarah would have been well into her 90's.   But, in these early days of human history, longevity and things like this were more common due to the fact that lifespans were not totally affected yet by the consequences of the Fall, although later they would be drastically shortened.  As people were living longer, it is of no real mystery that they were probably healthier too, which is why Sarah was able to carry a baby to term and give birth at such an advanced age.  In verse 4, Abraham as part of an earlier covenant has Isaac circumcised when he is eight days old, a ceremony that many religious Jews carry on today which is called a bris.  

There is a fast-forward on the story to maybe a couple of years later in verse 8 - Isaac is now a toddler, and Sarah has weaned him from nursing, which of course means a proud dad like Abraham has to throw a party - this is the promised son, so life events are occasions for celebration.  At some point around the same time one day, Ishmael (who is called in this passage "the son of Hagar the Egyptian") is observed by Sarah "playing" with Isaac (v. 9) and she becomes very upset by it.  Now, as we read this, we would ask the question as to why Sarah would be so upset with the boys playing normally?   However, a little more research revealed some theories on the source of her concern.  One thing that is mentioned by an Orthodox Jewish source I looked at ( - accessed 8/31/2016) suggests that Ishmael, because of his own Egyptian mother Hagar's inclinations, was inclined to idolatry and that Sarah didn't want Ishmael to corrupt Isaac and jeopardize the Covenant.  Other Bible translations also reveal something as well.   For instance, the NIV translates the word "playing" as "mocking," and David Stern's Complete Jewish Bible renders it as "making fun of."  The ancient text of the Book of Jasher, in 21:13-15, reveals something even more serious - it suggests that Ishmael was trying to actually kill Isaac with a bow as a cruel sport (Ken Johnson, Ancient Book of Jasher - Biblefacts Annotated Edition.  Lexington, KY:  Biblefacts, 2008.  p. 44).   Likewise, the later Book of Jubilees 17:4 notes that Sarah's concern was based on the fact that Abraham still cared a lot for Ishmael (Ishmael was his son too, after all!) and she was jealous because she feared Isaac would lose out (George H. Schodde, trans.  The Book of Jubilees - From the Ethiopic.  Oberlin, OH:  E.J. Goodrich, 1888.  p. 45).  It is my theory personally that all of this simultaneously was true at the same time, and that each source and translation just took the same situation from a different angle.   Therefore, the synthesis I would propose based on these observations is this - up until this point Ishmael was the older son, and perhaps in Abraham's mind (despite the fact he knew better) he was grooming Ishmael as his heir, but Sarah saw God work and wanted to protect Isaac.  Although perhaps Ishmael was innocently playing with the infant Isaac at this point, it is also possible he may have gotten a little rough in his play with the baby, and that sort of stirred Sarah up too.  Whatever the case, this was the motivation for what happened next in the story.

Classic painting of Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away

Sarah, as we saw, was incensed for some reason concerning Ishmael's interaction with Isaac, and she gets on the warpath and orders Abraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out.  Sarah didn't want Ishmael stealing what was rightfully Isaac's, and she was simply being a good mother although God was also orchestrating all of this for His purposes too.   Abraham is distraught over having to do this, but he listens and dutifully listens to his wife.   God reassures him in verse 12 that all is well, and that Abraham should listen to Sarah on this one for a reason. However, God also promises that although Isaac is the chosen heir, He was not going to forget Ishmael either, and that Ishmael would father a great nation as well.  So, the next morning, Abraham prepares provisions for Hagar and Ishmael, and sends them away.  After some time in the "wilderness" (desert), Hagar and her son end up near what would later (in Jacob's time) be called Beersheba (meaning "Well of the Oath") and at this point she is out of water and Ishmael is growing more faint by the minute.  So, she places him under a bush to shade him, and she is very upset because she fears the worst, that Ishmael is going to die out there. But, God hears her, and has mercy on Hagar, and an "Angel of God" calls to her.

As mentioned in other studies, in Genesis when this phrase "Angel of the Lord" pops up, it isn't necessarily referring to just your typical winged cherub.  The word "Angel" is sometimes also translated as Logos which of course is a Septuagint terminology meaning "an authoritative Word spoken," and it is the same word we see in the Gospels and elsewhere in reference to Christ.  The Church has always maintained that what was written in the Old Covenant is revealed in the New, and part of that is a Christocentric emphasis as far as Genesis and other books are concerned - a lot of typological imagery points to New Testament realities, and this is one such instance.  The Church, via this Christocentric interpretation of Genesis, has always viewed these references of "Angel of the Lord" as being Jesus Himself, and it points to the fact that the Son is a co-eternal part of the Godhead which means He also pre-existed the Incarnation.   We do profess in the Creed that Jesus was "begotten not made," and that means that although He came in human form to us to fully reveal the plan of salvation within Himself, He was never created and was always God.  This therefore is one of the primary evidences for the doctrine of the deity of Christ, and it establishes that He was involved in the story of redemption before His actual Incarnation.  Throughout Genesis as a matter of fact, we see it all over the place, as this enigmatic "Angel of the Lord" shows up a lot!  That being expounded, let us now get back to the story at hand. 

Hagar in the desert being encouraged

The "Angel of the Lord" (which we establish is an early Christophony) appears to Hagar, and He asks her what is wrong (as if He didn't know!) and then He reassures her that she doesn't need to fear because "God has heard" the boy (remember, this is also the meaning of Ishmael's name as well).  He then instructs Hagar to hold Ishmael, and promises her that Ishmael will be made a great nation. At that, a well suddenly appears that God has provided, and it re-hydrates them both with much-needed water. 

As this part of the story concludes, we see Ishmael growing up out in the desert, and when he comes of age some years later Hagar arranges for him to marry, and it is an Egyptian girl that she chooses for him.  He grows up out in what is called the Wilderness of Paran, which is east of where Abraham's home is, and he also becomes a skilled archer.  This is a trait his later descendants - the Arab Bedouin tribes - would still master to this day. 

Messing with Abimelech

The latter part of the chapter deals with Abraham's relationship with his old pal Abimelech, called the "King of Gerar" and later identified as a king of the early Phillistines.  Despite Abraham trying to "pimp out" Sarah earlier to this poor guy, he and Abimelech remained friends for many years, and they even establish a covenant between themselves (verse 23).  Although Abimelech is a long suffering guy and has proven to be a loyal friend to Abraham, he nonetheless understandably (based on past experiences!) makes Abraham swear a covenant to him not to deal falsely, as he himself has been up-front in his dealings with Abraham.  But, notice verse 24 and what happens not long after that - there is a dispute over a well, as apparently some of Abimelech's servants seize it from Abraham's without Abimelech even being aware of it until Abraham addresses it with him later. This is where Abraham and his friend Abimelech make a formal blood covenant then to resolve the well issue, and they do so with a sacrifice of sheep and oxen.  The way this worked, in verse 30, was that Abraham set aside seven female sheep (ewes) as a witness he dug the well, and it is at this point that the name Beersheba is given to the place ("Well of the Oath").  In addition to the well, Abraham also plants a field, and apparently the dispute is resolved.  But, as we will see later, Abimelech is part of the story at another point (this time it will be Isaac and not Abraham though). 

Genesis 22 begins with what is probably one of the most well-known yet enigmatic accounts in the whole Old Testament - the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  In verses 1-2, God Himself commands Abraham to do this, and he is to go to Moriah (which is the location of the future Temple Mount in Jerusalem) to do so.  This must have been very troubling to Abraham, and we can only imagine what must have been going through his head at this point - why is God telling me all these promises, making covenants, and now I have to sacrifice the very thing God promised me?  In spite of the understandable questioning in his own mind (which Scripture doesn't elaborate), Abraham knows that obedience to God is the priority, so the next morning he prepares and sets off with Isaac to obey the command. It takes about 3 days travel from where Abraham lives near Hebron to get to the present-day location of Jerusalem where he is to go on foot, and of course he takes Isaac with him.  Isaac is older now - probably early teens or even a young adult - and is understandably curious about some things - for instance, he is curious about where the sacrificial offering was (verse 7), but Abraham diplomatically answers that God will provide it for them in the following verse.  However, by the time they arrive, many who read this get the impression that Isaac has figured it out and for some reason resigns himself to his apparent fate.  After 3 days travel, they arrive then at the designated site.

Abraham constructs the altar on the Mount, and then proceeds to bind Isaac and place him on it.   In verse 10, Abraham (who must have been very conflicted at this point) raises the knife to offer up his only son, and God all of a sudden yells at him to stop.  Abraham has passed a very critical test, one his ancestor Adam failed - he put obedience and fear of God above his own fears, and this displayed the level of faithfulness he had.  God, true to His promise, does provide a sacrifice though, as a ram caught in a thicket nearby happens to catch Abraham's attention.  So, Isaac is loosed, and they worship at the altar with that offering, after which Abraham names the place "the Lord Has Appeared." 

There are many observations to be made about this story, as there are a lot of Christological typologies in it.  It was God Himself who tested Abraham, and through it God is teaching the readers of this passage that one day He will give His own Son for our atonement, and He was probably revealing this to Abraham as a sort of intense pedagogy.  After all, Jesus like Isaac was a faithful father's only beloved Son (John 3:16).  Secondly, like Isaac, Jesus would later carry the wood of His own sacrifice (the Cross) up a hill very close by where Abraham and Isaac were. Likewise, in the appearance of the ram, we see God's provision of Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our atonement.  (Scott Hahn, The Lamb's Supper.  New York:  Doubleday, 2001.  pp. 18-19).   Isaac's submission (willingly) therefore also foreshadows Christ in that like Jesus, Isaac freely yielded himself to be the sacrifice - note also here the words "only" and "beloved" are also used in both cases.  The final part of the imagery suggests that Abraham and Isaac ascending the mountain alone to sacrifice is a foreshadowing of Gethsemane, and some traditions even note that this was possibly the same location for both events (Henry Morris III, Genesis, the Book of Beginnings Vol. 3.  Dallas:  ICR, 2014.  pp. 86-89).  This story therefore, although an actual, literal event, is orchestrated by God to show us His plan of redemption, which is really what the whole of Scripture points to to begin with. 

In verses 20-24, there is a brief insertion of a genealogy, and this one is of Abraham's brother Nahor.  The reason for that is that it sort of sets the stage for Isaac's story, as this genealogy was the family tree of Rebekah, Isaac's future wife, as well as that of Rachel and Leah, who were the great-grandchildren of Nahor and would be wives of Isaac's son Jacob later.  That genealogy is very important both for Moses and for the later Gospel writers, as it gives a fairly detailed and well-documented pedigree of the coming Messiah.  

Chapter 23 centers then around the death of Sarah, who it says died at the age of 120.  She dies in Hebron, and Abraham mourns for her there on a nearby mountaintop.  After a mourning period, Abraham goes to these "sons of Heth" that live in the area to bargain for a place to put Sarah to rest, and they gladly negotiate the sale of a location called the Cave of Machpeleh near Hebron.  The owner of the cave is one Ephron the Hittite, and for a very fair price he sells Abraham both the cave and the adjacent field.  The purchase price for it was about 400 silver drachmas (this is obviously a rendering from the Septuagint translation, as a drachma is a currency of Greek origin that would not exist for centuries later - the translators probably wanted to include a recognizable point of reference that would communicate to their readers).  As to this Ephron the Hittite and his people, there are several things of note about that.  The accepted tradition is that they are actual Hittites that settled the region.  However, this creates a problem, as Heth, who they are said to be descended from, is a descendant himself of Ham, whereas the classical Hittites we read of in the history books are Indo-European and are believed by some theologians and scholars to be a different people - one of them, theologian Max Muller, argues that the Anatolian Hittites of antiquity were in reality descendants of a grandson of Japheth named Chittim or Kittim, who was a son of Japheth's son Javan (the historic progenitor of the Greek nation).  It is believed that this is where they got the name from.   The other "Hittites" mentioned in this passage were a different group altogether, and some postulate that they should correctly be called Hethites instead and have no connection to the Hittite Empire, which quite frankly would not have existed at this point.  Following that hypothesis (which has great merit) we would conclude then that the Hethites who dealt with Abraham in this passage were in reality a tribe of Canaanites ( - accessed 9/2/2016).  

With Sarah's passing, the subsequent chapters will begin to see a transition from Abraham's story to Isaac's which is rather brief.  The next lesson will actually wrap up Abraham's legacy as it overlaps with Isaac, and the story will pick up with Isaac's coming of age and getting married.