As a child, I was terrified by stories in which people were turned to stone. Medusa was the most horrifying of monsters to me, and the narrated portion of Conan the Adventurer’s opening freaked out my business. And it didn’t even have to be human people, or even stone necessarily! Trolls were the bad guys in The Hobbit and The World of David the Gnome, but scenes in which the rising sun turned them to stone still gave me the jibblies. I declined to see Ernest: Scared Stupid with my brother and father. And even when my brother and I rented it in high school, the numerous organic-to-mineral transmutations in Return to Oz left me unsettled. But I’ve saved the best for last: my first encounter with this harrowing phenomenon was drawn directly from today’s passage.
I could swear my dad had marked up this chapter more. He’s certainly talked to me about it enough, speculating as to whether the three men whom Abraham encounters are in fact the Trinity, investigating the notion that this may be a pre-incarnate Christophany, pointing out some detail of the original Hebrew that I cannot at this moment recall. But my dad, whose Bible I use, has only written a single marginal note on this whole chapter. It’s three words, which you may be able to see in the photo above: “Hospitality – 1) Inconvenient 2) Costly.”
Finally, Abraham is officially Abraham! Now I can stop feeling weird when I refer to him by the name by which he is most widely known, but which he has not technically been given yet!
So, God has explicitly promised Abraham an heir who is his son by birth. But Sarah has been unable to conceive and is well past child-bearing age. Where is this heir going to come from? Sarah has an idea: God said the heir would come from Abraham, but he didn’t say it had to come from Sarah. Thus, she’ll give her maid Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar and Abraham will have the child. Problem solved, right? No. There are complications.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you there are no elephants in the Bible. And no, I’m not talking about implied elephants on the ark. Nor am I referring to Solomon’s importing of elephants’ tusks in 1 Kings 10:22. Did you know that ever since Genesis 12, Abraham has been traveling with an elephant? In Genesis 12, as you recall, God promised to make a great nation out of Abraham and to bless the entire world through him. But Abraham’s wife is well past child-bearing age, apparently infertile. How will he become a great nation if his line of descendants ends with him? The elephant Abraham is traveling with is the elephant in the room.
The genealogies of the Bible, particularly those in Genesis, get a bad rap as containing little action and entirely too many hard-to-pronounce names. But while today’s chapter isn’t a genealogy and has no shortage of action, it’s still packed to the gills with people and places with names like Chedorlaomer and Zeboiim. Honestly, as I read these lists of kings at war and their home nations, my eyes gloss over and in my head I start thinking, “In the days of Guy king of Place, and Different Guy king of Other Place…” and if you do the same, I wouldn’t blame you. But that’s what we get for not possessing a native-level familiarity with the ancient Hebrew language.
One thing I appreciate about the Bible is that it’s not afraid to show its protagonists in an unflattering light. It’s open about the shortcomings and issues of its central characters. Just yesterday, we got a clear look at Abraham’s less noble side, as he caves to fear and instructs his wife to join him in a lie in order to protect his own skin. It didn’t shy away from introducing complications with even God’s behavior, as he afflicted Pharaoh’s household with seemingly-undeserved plagues. In today’s chapter, though, Abraham gives his nephew Lot first pick of the land near Bethel, so we are unfortunately without any seamy stories of patriarchal depravity at present, stuck instead with Good Guy Abraham.