Friday, January 18

The Tent of Meeting: The “tent” (Latin tabernaculum where Abraham receives the Lord prefigures the later Tabernacle which Moses, at divine instruction, caused to be set up in the Desert as the place where Israel would meet the Lord. In both instances, the Hebrew word is identical—’ohel. At each place where Israel stopped during the forty years of wandering in the Desert, this ’ohel was erected, and it was taken down again when the People moved on. Whenever the People were on the move, the ’ohel was carried by the priests, and, wherever they camped, the ’ohel stood in the middle of the camp.

The later tabernacle (’ohel) set up in the desert was based on the original tyoe, the tabernacle “not made with hands,” which Moses beheld in mystic vision on Mount Sinai. As we are in the process of reading in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the ascended Jesus, our High Priest, entered into that heavenly tabernacle.

To return to the ’ohel in Genesis 18—-when Sarah first learned the news of the child she was to bear, she was eavesdropping—from within this tabernaculum—on a conversation between her husband and the Lord, whom he hosted outside. “Sarah your wife shall have a son,” she heard the Lord say. Her response? “Sarah laughed within herself,” asserts the Sacred Text, a reaction that she was a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the matter. “I did not laugh,” she insisted. “No,” the Lord pressed the point, “but you did laugh!”

Her laughter was prompted, of course, by the sheer incongruity of the proposition, because “Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.” Did her laughter also betray skepticism about the promise? A first reading of the text may suggest it did, because her laugh was accompanied by the remark, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

Nonetheless, our earliest Christian commentator on the passage evidently did not think this to be the case. He even counted Sarah among the heroes of faith: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11).

Hebrews 12:18-24: The author of Hebrews outlines a contrast between two mountains: Sinai and Zion—the mountain of the Law and the mountain of the Temple, or the covenant with Moses and the covenant with David.

A similar contrast between these two mountains—Sinai and Zion—was made by St. Paul, much to the same effect: “For these are two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar—for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children—but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:24-26).

In both texts—Galatians and Hebrews—there is a contrast between the bondage of the Law and the boldness of the Christian. With respect to this contrast, St. Paul writes, “you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). In both cases, we observe, Mount Zion is called the heavenly Jerusalem: According to Galatians, “the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.” According to Hebrews, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.”

One suspects that this contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion may have been a rhetorical trope in early Christian preaching. This suggestion would explain why we find it in both Galatians and Hebrews, in spite of the great differences between these two works. This contrast is used in both places and adapted to the theme of each work.

Saturday, January 19

Genesis 19: To the fine example of hospitality shown by Abraham and Sarah in the previous chapter we now find opposed the terrible example of hospitality shown by the residents of Sodom. Although their failure in the matter of hospitality may not have been the worst of their sins, it was sufficiently serious for Jesus to speak of it in the context of the hospitality that He expected His own apostles to receive when they entered a town (Matthew 10:11–15).

Throughout Holy Scripture, Sodom will be remembered as a very bad place that got exactly what it deserved (Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19; Jeremiah 49:17–18; 50:40; Ezekiel 16:46–48, 55–56; Matthew 11:23–24; Revelation 11:8).

There are striking similarities between Psalm 11 (10) and this chapter’s description of the overthrow of Sodom. Consider the psalm: “He shall rain down snares upon sinners; / Fire and brimstone and a raging wind shall be the portion of their cup.” And Genesis: “Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah from the Lord out of heaven.” Or, again, in the psalm: “In the Lord I trust. How will you say to my soul, / ‘Flee to the mountains like a sparrow’?” And the angels say to Lot in Genesis: “Escape for your life! Do not look behind you nor stay anywhere in the plain. Escape to the mountains, lest you be overtaken.” To which Lot answers: “I cannot escape to the mountains, lest some evil overtake me and I die.” And yet again in the psalm: “The righteous Lord loves righteousness; / His face beholds the upright.”

But according to the apostle Peter, this explains precisely what transpired in the present chapter of Genesis, where God, “turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to destruction, making them an example to those who afterward would live ungodly; and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds)” (2 Peter 2:6–8).

And the psalm once more:

The Lord is in His holy temple; / The Lord, His throne is in heaven; / His eyes are fixed upon the poor man, / His eyelids examine the sons of men. / The Lord examines the righteous and the ungodly, / And he who loves unrighteousness hates his own soul.”

And once again Peter, commenting on the present chapter of Genesis: “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations and to reserve the unjust under punishment for the day of judgment (2:9).

Similarly, when Jesus would tell us of the final and catastrophic times, it is to Sodom that He sends us: “Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:28–30). Indeed, “even so,” for we ourselves yet abide in the cities of the plain, “as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these” (Jude 7).

Sunday, January 20

Genesis 20: Abimelech, the king of Gerar, had an appreciative eye for handsome women. This trait brought him briefly to grief on one occasion, but they say he learned from the experience.

The incident began when some newcomers, Abraham and Sarah, settled in the neighborhood. When Sarah was introduced as Abraham’s sister, poor Abimelech at one glance felt himself going all gooey inside. At the sight of this beautiful, apparently unmarried woman, the king’s ardently smitten heart started to flutter like a leaf in the breeze. With a single look at the lady (a look that sober minds may have judged, nonetheless, injudiciously long), Abimelech found his knees shaky and his throat dry. This lovely Sarah was surely meant for him; the king had no doubt.

And, being the king, Abimelech was accustomed to getting what he wanted. Indeed, royal courting and romancing were rather uncomplicated in those days; Abimelech simply sent over to Abraham’s place and had Sarah removed to the royal palace. It all happened very fast. In fact, the story so far is contained in just one Bible verse (20:2).

Now in the considerations that follow, let us be temperate with Abimelech. He was, after all, a man in love, and men thus stricken have been known to act precipitously once in a while. Let us be gentle with him.

Nonetheless, let us also be frank. Abimelech should have known that this was not a smart move. Certain features of the case, if he had thought on them, might have prompted the king to a greater and more salutary caution.

Not least among these was the fact that lovely Sarah was ninety years old at the time (17:17), and Abimelech should have given that circumstance the reflection it deserved. This was not good. Please understand, no matter how well preserved and retentive of her youth the lady may be, the abrupt abduction of a ninety-year-old woman for amorous purposes is generally considered bad form. Among gentlemen, at least, it simply isn’t done. And when it is done, let me tell you, most of the time the thing just doesn’t work out.

Second, Abimelech was wrong to take at face value the assertion, “She is my sister.” That was one of Abraham’s old tricks to avoid getting his throat slit by other men who, it appears, were forever falling in love with his unusually attractive wife. Years before, when he and Sarah were visiting Egypt, the pharaoh down there had been similarly smitten with her. Not only had Abraham on that occasion saved his own life by recourse to his she-is-my-sister routine, but also the pharaoh had given Abraham lots of nice presents to honor him. Then, when the whole thing blew up in the pharaoh’s face, Abraham still got to keep the presents (12:11–20). That is to say, the ruse paid off.

Abraham, if questioned further about Sarah’s being his sister, could always point out that “sister” in Hebrew really means “female relative,” and Sarah was a blood relative—his half-sister, in fact (20:12).

Obviously this convenient arrangement was useful for throwing would-be rivals into confusion, nor did Abraham much scruple on the matter. Although we are never told Sarah’s views about it, we do know that she tended to appreciate the humor and irony of things (18:11–12).

Anyway, to return to our story, Abimelech thought Sarah definitely the woman of his dreams. These dreams, however, began turning sour right away: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘Indeed, you are a dead man because of the woman you have taken, for she is a man’s wife’” (20:3). Abimelech argued his innocence, a point the Lord conceded, and in the morning Sarah was returned, untouched, to her husband. Both of them were rebuked for the deception, but Abimelech still loaded them down with more presents (20:4–16).

Monday, January 21

Two Women, Two Sons: We come now to the long-awaited birth of Isaac, concerning which the New Testament says,

By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars in the sky in multitude—innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:11–12).

While the author of Hebrews praises the faith of Sarah in this respect, the apostle Paul tends rather to stress the faith of Abraham (Romans 4:19–22). The circumcision of Isaac (v. 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9–14, would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.

In chapter 16 we already learned that all was not well between Sarah and Hagar after Ishmael was born. At that time, however, Hagar enjoyed the advantage that she had borne a son, and Sarah had not.

In the present chapter, that advantage is a thing of the past, and we are not surprised to see that now Hagar and Ishmael are regarded as the mere slaves they are. Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” (NKJV) at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a reference to the kinds of teasing younger children have been known to suffer from older children. Indeed, one may reasonably speculate that Ishmael had heard disparaging remarks about Sarah and Isaac from his own mother and was simply acting them out. At the very least, Sarah does not want her son playing with a mere slave boy.

So Hagar must go. Ishmael’s true situation is revealed in the fact that he is not even named; he is simply “the son of this maidservant” (verse 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a nonentity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a formal legal sense that no longer bears legal significance, the older boy is still Abraham’s son, and Abraham loves him.

Whatever Sarah’s reasons for expelling Hagar and Ishmael, God had His own reasons, and He permitted Sarah’s plans to succeed in order for His own reasons to succeed. This is true rather often; God permits evil to prevail for the sake of a greater good that only He can see and plan for. Had Hagar and Ishmael stayed on in Abraham’s household, they would have remained slaves. By their departure Ishmael was able to become the father of a great people on the earth (v. 13), a great people with us to this day, the great people of Arabia, for whom God manifested a special providential interest in this text. We will meet this theme of divine providence abundantly in the Joseph story toward the end of Genesis.

The biblical text tends to lose track of Hagar and Ishmael once they arrive in the Negev Desert. The legends of the Arabs tell their own story of how far the mother and child reached in their journey, namely, Mecca. The spring in verses 14–19 the Arabs identify as the spring of Zamzam, near the Ka‘ba at Mecca, which spring allowed human life to flourish in that place. Thus, Ishmael is credited with the founding of Mecca, which is a religious shrine vastly older than Islam. According to the Bible, the Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as their rather bellicose cousins (16:11–12). Indeed, much of the later history of the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean Basin was dominated by a single idea: how to restrain the ancient and native bellicosity of Arabia.

Tuesday, January 22

Beloved Son: When the author of Chronicles wrote, “Now Solomon began to build the house of the Lord at Jerusalem on Mount Moriah” (2 Chronicles 3:1), he inserted the theology of Genesis squarely into his account of Israel’s sacrificial worship. In fact, this text in Chronicles is the only place in Holy Scripture where the site of the temple is identified as Mount Moriah, the place where Abraham took Isaac to be sacrificed (Genesis 22:2). This is no incidental detail.

By introducing this connection of the temple to that distant event, not only does the Chronicler subtly indicate the new temple’s continuity with the distant patriarchal period, he also provides his readers with a very rich theme of soteriology.

In fact, chapter 22 is the Bible’s first instance of a “substitution” made in the matter of sacrifice. This ram caught in the bush becomes the substitute for Isaac, thus foreshadowing the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, which would be slaughtered on behalf of Israel’s firstborn sons on the night of the Exodus. In chapter 22, then, we are dealing with the Bible’s earliest configuration of a category important in biblical soteriology. The paschal lambs, offered in Solomon’s temple over the centuries, were all pre- figured by that earlier event on Mount Moriah.

The apostle Paul appealed to this category when he wrote that God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). Echoing this text from Romans, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote,

Abraham, according to his faith, adhered to the command of God’s Word, and with a ready mind delivered up, as a sacrifice to God, his only-begotten and beloved son, in order that God also might be pleased to offer up, for all his seed, His own beloved and only-begotten Son, as a sacrifice for our redemption” (Against the Heresies 4.5.4).

If Isaac was a prefiguration of the paschal lambs sacrificed in the Old Testament temple, then he is certainly a prefiguration of the One of whom St. Paul wrote, “Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7). This theme of Christ as the Paschal Lamb has been much developed in the thought and imagery of Holy Church, and this from earliest times. Thus, in the second century St. Justin Martyr wrote, “And the blood of the Passover, sprinkled on each man’s door-posts and lintel, delivered those who were saved in Egypt, when the first-born of the Egyptians were destroyed. For the Passover was Christ, who was afterwards sacrificed, as also Isaiah said, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.’ And it is written, that on the day of the Passover you seized Him, and that also during the Passover you crucified Him. And as the blood of the Passover saved those who were in Egypt, so also the blood of Christ will deliver from death those who have believed” (Dialogue With Trypho III). Such testimonies are ubiquitous in Christian literature.

Wednesday, January 23

The Death of Sarah: Sarah’s burial in Genesis 23 merits more attention, let me suggest, than it generally gains.

The relative neglect of this story is easy to understand. Less dramatic than the sacrifice of Isaac, which comes right before it, the narrative about Sarah is also less romantic than the wooing of Rebecca, which immediately follows it. To the former it is no match as drama, because the quiet death of an old person is less exciting than the threatened death of a young person. And though Abraham’s burial of Sarah is hardly without romance, the tone of this romance is subdued, subtle, more nuanced than the younger love of Isaac and Rebekah. By these criteria, then, Sarah’s interment represents a pause, as it were, a respite or slowing down in the Abraham saga. For these reasons it may not especially stand out in the memory of Bible-readers.

However, there are two reasons why Sarah’s burial deserves more explicit attention: First, the story offers an intriguing psychological portrait of Abraham. Second, it sews a significant theological stitch in the Bible’s narrative pattern.

Let us begin with the story’s psychological interest in Abraham. A useful way to approach this subject, I think, is by contrasting the figure of Abraham in this account with that in Genesis 18. This comparison is amply warranted, inasmuch as both narratives describe Abraham engaged in a “negotiation.”

In the earlier story, when Abraham learns of the Lord’s plan to destroy Sodom, he fears for the fate of his nephew Lot, a resident of the city. With an enviable but bewildering optimism he endeavors to change the Lord’s mind, engaging Him in what is arguably the boldest enterprise of “haggling” ever recorded. No attentive reader will forget how Abraham resolutely lowers the original price, as it were, arguing the sum of required just men from fifty down to ten. The bargaining ends only when the Lord Himself, as though desperate of winning the arbitration, suddenly breaks it off!

In Genesis 23 all is different. After Abraham has lain prostrate for a while before the dead body of his wife, he rises, sobered by sorrow, and approaches a local Hittite chieftain in order to obtain a piece of land wherein to bury the cherished companion of his long life. He describes himself now as “a foreigner and visitor,” designations rendered doubly significant in the context of death. Abraham is solemn and deferential. There is no haggling now. His whole demeanor is one of gravity and respect. Sarah is gone. What else matters?

Finally, for a small field containing a cave Abraham pays the exorbitant price of four hundred shekels of silver. (In 1 Kings 16:24 Omri pays only six thousand shekels of silver for the entire site of the large city of Samaria.) A man does not haggle over the price of his wife’s tomb. After such a loss, nothing else is worth much. The old man treads slowly out to the cave, bearing Sarah’s body and a lifetime of intimate love.

Second, the story of Sarah’s burial in Genesis 23 advances the theological theme of Israel’s taking possession of the Promised Land. Up to this point in the biblical history, let us recall, Abraham owned no property in Canaan, “not even enough to set his foot on” (Acts 7:5). With the purchase of the burial cave of Machpelah, however, his family actually acquires its first piece of real estate in the Holy Land. This portion of ground becomes the initial installment of Israel’s inheritance, the germinal redemption of God’s earlier pledge, “To your descendents I have given this land” (Genesis 15:18).

In this burial ground an inter-generational transmission of ownership is now established, a “tradition,” a “handing on,” of Israel’s historical identity. The aged flesh of Sarah is but the first deposit the Chosen People adds to the soil of Canaan. Abraham will presently join her at Machpelah, and in due course Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah too, will lie down in the tombs beside them. Here the ancestors of the Chosen People will return—“dust to dust”—to the earth from which they were taken.

The grave is the place, after all, where time is fixed, durably fused with space. The complex, shadowing mists of the past are coupled forever to the plain but sturdy permanence of the soil. Everything is settled. In the graveyard, history and geography become one.

Thursday, January 24

Bride for Isaac: The doctrine of divine providence is asserted in the biblical thesis that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). This “working together” of historical events under divine governance for particular and interrelated purposes is a mystery, of course, but a mystery in two senses.

First, divine providence is a mystery in the sense that it is humanly inscrutable, exceeding even the furthest reaches of our thought, and is known only by faith. That is to say, it pertains to divine revelation. It is not the general providence, the natural pronoia of the Stoics and Middle Platonists, but a special providence revealed by God’s particular interventions in the structure of history. For this reason Holy Scripture never attempts to explain it. Although the Bible affirms divine providence, it teaches no theory of the matter.

Second, divine providence is also a mystery in the sense that we are initiated into it. It is rendered accessible, that is, to our revelatory experience of it, the discernment of which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is particular and personal, sensed through the coherent structure of events. For this reason Holy Scripture not only affirms divine providence, but also portrays the mystery of it through narratives about events.

One literary method of conveying the providential purpose in a biblical story is to place the affirmation of it in the mouth of one of the characters. A very fetching example of this literary device is found in Genesis 24, which describes the journey of Abraham’s servant to Mesopotamia in order to find a suitable bride for Isaac (namely, Rebekah). In this exquisitely crafted account of God’s historical intervention in response to prayer, two features should especially be noted.

First, the story is told twice—initially by the narrator (24:1–26) and then a second time by a character within the narrative itself, namely the servant (24:34–48). This deliberate doubling of the story, which obliges the reader to think about its implications a second time, also serves the purpose of placing the theme of divine providence more completely within the fabric of the tale. In the first telling, the reader is struck by how quickly the servant’s prayer is heard—“And it happened, before he had finished speaking” (24:15). This promptness of God’s response is emphasized in the second telling—“before I had finished speaking in my heart” (24:45). God is encountered in the servant’s experience of the event that comes crashing in, as it were, on his prayer.

Second, the doubling of the narrative is not artificial. It is essential, rather, to the motive of Rebekah and her family in their decision that she should accompany the servant back to Abraham’s home and become the wife of Isaac. That is to say, the characters themselves are made aware that God has spoken through the narrated events. They perceive God’s providence: “The thing [dabar] comes from the Lord; we cannot speak [dabber] to you either bad or good. Here is Rebekah before you; take her and go, and let her be your master’s son’s wife, as the Lord has spoken [dibber]” (24:50–51). The event itself, the “thing,” was a “word” from God, a dabar. That is to say, given the servant’s testimony, it was clear that all things had worked together “for good to those who love God.”

Friday, January 25

Genesis 25: Abraham, having spent most of his life childless, seems to have overdone it a bit toward the end. He married a woman named Keturah, who bore him quite a family (vv. 1–6). This brief account sits somewhat outside of the central core of the biblical narrative, almost as an afterthought. Although it may have taken place prior to the marriage of Isaac in the previous chapter, the story is told at the very end, just before Abraham’s death. Its insertion into the Bible manifests a concern to show that the Israelites were related by blood to other peoples who lived in the region, particularly the Midianites and Kedemites (“Easterners”), nomadic tribes of the Arabian and Syrian deserts.

At the same time, however, care is taken to show that Abraham kept this later family separate from Isaac (v. 6), who alone was the heir of the divine promises.

At Abraham’s death, he is buried in the same plot that he purchased earlier at Hebron for the burial of Sarah. Ishmael and Isaac join to bury their father, a fact apparently indicating that some contact between the two households had been maintained (vv. 7–11). The scene of Abraham’s burial, uniting these two peoples of the Middle East, seems especially poignant in our own day.

Now that Abraham has died, the Bible’s interest will go to the history of Isaac and his family. This is not done, however, until the author has tidied up Ishmael and his own progeny (vv. 12–18). Here we observe that twelve tribes trace their lineage back to Ishmael, a parallel to the twelve tribes that will spring from the seed of Jacob later on. Various of these Arabian tribes will be mentioned again in Holy Scripture, in Exodus and Chronicles for example.

The latter part of this chapter concerns Isaac’s own sons, twins who begin to fight even in Rebekah’s womb (vv. 22–23). These men were already rivals, and, according to Romans 9:10–13, God had already chosen one of them in preference over the other. Just as God chose Isaac in preference to Ishmael, He chose Jacob in preference to Esau. “Choice” in this context does not pertain to eternal salvation, but to the role that Jacob was destined to play in the history of salvation. God’s “rejection” of Esau means only that he was not chosen to play that role; in the same sense, God will “reject” the older brothers in favor of David (1 Kingdoms 16:5–12). There is nothing in the Sacred Text, either in Genesis, Malachi 1:1–5, or Romans, even faintly to suggest that Esau was predestined to hell.

Jacob is obviously the shrewder of the two men (vv. 29–34). Indeed, Esau comes off as a bit of a spiritual klutz, forfeiting his birthright for a single meal. He should serve as a warning to Christians themselves, who may be tempted to squander their own birthright in favor of some immediate satisfaction (cf. Hebrews 12:14–17).

The attaining of a birthright requires patience and endurance; it is something to be valued and waited for. In this respect, we learn something of the superior patience of Jacob, which will become even clearer in his dealings with Laban later on.