In today’s chapter, Isaac travels in the land of a foreign king, in order to avoid the effects of a local famine, and to keep the inhabitants from killing him and taking his extremely attractive wife, he claims she’s his sister. Sound familiar? It’s the same thing Abraham did twice before. However, to paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, you can’t step in the same river twice, much less the same river that your father stepped in. Isaac’s encounter doesn’t go exactly as his father’s two encounters did, but what are we to make of that?
Has God ever granted one of your requests in mid-prayer? One Saturday afternoon during my teenage years, after spending entirely too much time searching for a chapstick and getting increasingly frustrated, I began to ask God to help me find the chapstick, only to look down and see it lying on the sofa. I could tell you ten bojillion stories in which God answered my “help me find X” prayers, but all of them except the chapstick one involved some length of time between the request and the finding, ranging from a few minutes to half a year. But we are here to discuss not the Complete History of Jackson’s Answered Prayers, but rather today’s chapter of Genesis. And like my chapstick situation, today’s chapter of Genesis features a “help me find X” prayer that was answered before it was even completed.
More than once, a verse or passage in Genesis has done little more than remind me that we live in a vastly different culture than the people of the ancient Near East. And yes, we have just such a chapter today. Genesis 23 covers the death and burial of Sarah. Two verses are devoted to Abraham’s mourning over her, and fifteen verses–75% of the chapter, by verse–are devoted to the negotiation by which Abraham buys a burial plot. If you or I were recording this event, we would probably approach it somewhat differently.
Today’s chapter tells the story of the Binding of Isaac, in which God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham goes to do it, and the angel of the Lord tells him that he doesn’t actually have to sacrifice his son. It’s one of the better-known passages from the Bible, and with good reason. An ostensibly all-loving God calling for human sacrifice, only to turn around and say, “No, wait, sacrifice this ram instead,” has a way of arresting our attention. But I feel like the story, in its magnitude, has me hemmed in on all sides. How can I adequately address its scope? How can I say something worthy of the monumental matters it raises?
In today’s chapter, Abraham and Sarah finally have their son. A year from the three men’s visit, just as he said he would, God visits Sarah and enables her to conceive. An omnipotent creator of the universe is never late, nor is he early; he arrives precisely when he means to.
In junior high, when one of my friends encountered the name “Abimelech,” he adopted a silly deep voice with a quasi-Middle-Eastern accent and pronounced it “a-BIM-lick.” I started drawing a series of comics titled “The Bimlik,” in which a handful of shyguys, at least one of whom had just had or was about to have or was in the process of having face surgery, had inane conversations before encountering a nebulously-drawn monster called the Bimlik, with violent results. Apart from illustrating how strange ancient Semitic names can sound to contemporary American ears, this story has nothing to do with today’s chapter, but a personal anecdote can make for an effective introduction.
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.