Genesis 20 - Abimelech

The Bible never engages in hagiography: it does not clean up our ancestors in faith and turn them into saints. From the beginning to end, the Bible depicts real people, with faults, doubts, and humanity. Moses had a Temper. David had an affair. The Psalmist sometimes feels forgotten and other times enraged. Jeremiah feels that his prophetic calling is a burden. But it also means that many Biblical stories are not meant to suggest, “go and do likewise” (from the story of the Good Samaritan – Luke 10:37).  Rather, they are intended to help us see deeper into the human predicament.

I write this because I wonder why Abraham and Sarah’s “sister act” is happening again.  Why isn’t Abraham shooting straight? Does he have a perennial character flaw? Is it because the world of the patriarchs is so unequal and misogynistic that beautiful women wind up in the harems of Pharaoh and now Abimelech, and husbands are virtually powerless to speak up?

Interestingly God goes directly to Abimelech, just in case you thought God only communicates with the chosen. (God communicates with whomever God chooses: remember God also communicated with the Magi through a dream and sent them home by another way.)

Genesis 21:1-20 – The Promised Child Arrives – Joy and Sadness

Finally, Isaac is born. Isaac means laughter.  Some see this as a reference to Sarah’s laugher in Genesis 18. Or perhaps his name is a statement about the absurdity of it all – their advanced age (at this point 90 and 100), the crazy, decades-long wait, or, perhaps, that God was faithful and gracious and finally did come through on the promise after all.  What strikes you as humorous?


Sarah sings in verses 6-7.  In the Bible, people are frequently moved to song. When was the last time your heart felt like singing? What sort of song was it? Joy? Sadness? Gratitude? Longing? Abraham celebrates with a feast.  Ishmael joins in the laughter, which is the occasion for Sarah to insist that Abraham send him and his mother away.

Hagar’s story is heartbreaking. I cannot help but think that she just got a raw deal. First she is marshaled into being a surrogate mother. She was a servant from Egypt and did not have many options. Sarah wants to be rid of her, and God seems to agree – as Isaac will bear the promise of blessing. Fortunately, God does not forget Hagar and promises her that Ishmael will also become a great nation.

Notice that sending Ishmael away constituted a sacrifice for Abraham. Consider how this likely intensified the grief he experienced when he was asked to also sacrifice Isaac.

Genesis 21:21-34 – Well, Well

With his family sort of straightened out, Abraham straightens out his relationships with his neighbors. Abraham cuts (the terminology) a covenant (which means both “to bind” and “to separate”) with his neighbors, as God did with him. Biblical covenanting calls attention to the social dimension of human nature. It also provides a positive basis for respectful, constructive engagement with people of different cultures and religions, as well as a model for federated political structures (“federation” comes from the Latin, foedus, which was frequently used to translate the Hebrew word for covenant, brit).

Genesis 22 – Abraham Tested

Yikes. This story is one of the most mysterious, troubling, and horrifying in the Bible or in any literature. It comes just as God’s promise finally seems on track. When God calls Abraham, he does it personally and by his new name, Avraham, “Father of Multitudes.”


Why God demands Isaac is inscrutable to me. Some hypothesize that God demands Isaac to test Abraham’s obedience. Would Abraham be completely compliant? If this is the test, Abraham passes it. He reveres God more than his family. He is willing to render to God that which is God’s. At the same time, because I have known mentally ill people who thought God was calling them to strange and dangerous things, I am reluctant to ratify irrational, unloving obedience.

Others hypothesize that the purpose of this story is to outlaw child sacrifice. We know that other cultures have practiced child sacrifice. Human sacrifice was common in Ancient Mesoamerican cultures, for example. So maybe. At the same time, the request is for a child sacrifice.

Still others differentiate between a demand and a request. They say the word na is too infrequently translated and that a better translation would be “take please [in Hebrew, na] your son…”(Genesis 22.2).  Thus, what God is requesting is less a command and more an invitation. I don’t know if this really helps me. Does it help you?

The great Old Testament theologian, Gerhard Von Rad, offers the only explanation that I find plausible. His view fits with the observation that parents tend to view “their children” as “their own.” They even find their identity in their children. More than for most people, for the “Father of Multitudes” to kill Isaac is to destroy himself. Von Rad’s conclusion is that by demanding that Abraham give him back, he must learn that the child and his identity are a gift from God. 

John Claypool, a once prominent Baptist turned Episcopal Preacher, said that after the death of his daughter to leukemia, Von Rad’s interpretation of this terrifying passage was the only thing that could comfort him. His daughter was a gift. Giving her back was heart-rending. Yet in the vortex of emotions, grief, and anger that accompanied her death, there could also be gratitude for the joy and laughter she had brought: for to have had her at all was a gift that he had never deserved nor earned.

When parents get their children baptized, I remind them that one meaning of baptism is that their children belong to God in life and in death. As terrible as it is for any parent to contemplate, there is comfort in knowing that we really do belong to God, and nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The story unfolds in surreal, slow motion – particularly compared with the fast paced narrative of Genesis up to this point. Isaac’s question about the lamb (Genesis 22:7) suggests that he’s seen sacrifices before. Abraham’s response, “God will provide” is a statement of profound faith.


Genesis 23 – Sarah’s Death and Burial

In Genesis 23, we have the story of the last thing that Abraham must do, which is to purchase a burial plot. I’ve been to Hebron to the Mosque (and also used as a Synagogue) built over Abraham and Sarah’s tomb. Their graves are the only land that Abraham and Sarah ever own.

Upcoming Readings

March 12 – 18: Genesis 24 - 28

March 19 – 25: Genesis 29 – 33

March 26 - April 1: Genesis 34 – 37

April 2 – 8: Genesis 38 – 41

April 9 – 15: Genesis 42 – 45

April 16 – 22: Genesis 46 – 47

April 23 – 29: Genesis 48 – 50