Sunday, January 16
Genesis 16: Like the precedent referred to in 15:2-4, the legal fiction found here in verses 1-3 (and later on in the Jacob cycle) was never part of Israelite law, though both customs are well attested otherwise in Mesopotamian literature of the first half of the second millennium before Christ — that is, the very period under discussion. This fact is irrefutable evidence of the historicity of both of those narratives.
Hagar was one of the Egyptian slaves that Pharaoh gave to Abram back in 12:16. The idea of Abram’s begetting children by this younger woman was Sarai’s, but when things backfire (verse 4) Sarai lays all the blame on Abram (verse 5)! The latter just shrugs his shoulders and tells his wife to handle the matter (verse 6).
The slave Hagar, being an Egyptian, heads south in her flight, though we know from another contemporary document, Hammurabi’s Code, that she endangered her life by running away. She travels the hundred miles or so from Hebron to Shur, southwest of Beersheba, which was a pretty good distance for a pregnant woman to walk, and there she encounters the “angel of the Lord” (malek Adonai), an expression that appears here for the first time in Holy Scripture (verse 7). The angel’s promise to Hagar (verses 10-12) stands parallel to the promises that Abram himself received in the Chapters 13 and 15. Although she herself is a slave, the angel tells Hagar that her son will not be.
It is a source of wonderment to this slave that she has been noticed by God (verse 13) in this story of God’s concern for the poor, the simple, and the persecuted. Hagar discovers her worth, when God’s sends His angel to care for her. God appears already as the champion of the downtrodden, as He will be especially portrayed in the Bible’s great social prophets.
What should be said about Abram’s taking of this slave girl as a sort of second wife? We observe that God did not tell him to do this. It was Sarai’s idea. The whole project, that is to say, was of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It is no great thing for a young woman to conceive and bear a child, but a great thing is what God had in mind to do. Sarai’s plan was a classic case of man interfering with the plans of God. This was simply a work of the flesh, as St. Paul observed (Galatians 4:21-25).
In this respect, furthermore, the Apostle to the Gentiles saw a prefigurement of the situation of the Jews and Christians with regard to Abraham. The Jews, he argued, were children of Abraham is a fleshly way, unlike Abraham’s spiritual paternity of Christians! (4:26-28). Christians, not being slaves, are not children of Hagar, whereas the Jews, unfamiliar with freedom in Christ, are still slaves to the flesh and the Law (4:31). They are the children of Hagar! This idea closes off a chapter of Galatians that began with the transformation from slavery to freedom (3:29—4:7).
Monday, January 17
Genesis 17: This chapter narrates the circumstances in which Abram and Sarai become Abraham and Sarah (verses 5,15).
This second account of God’s covenant with Abram is the first instance, of three, intimating the source of the name of his son and heir, Isaac. Isaac was named for laughter, because that name, formed from the verbal root shq, literally means “he will laugh.” When Abram learns that he, at age 100, and his wife, at age 90, will be the parents of this little boy, what else can he do but laugh? (verse 17)
No one felt the irony of their situation better than Sarah herself, however, who will learn of this divine plan in the next chapter, where she will discover the news while eavesdropping, from within the tent, on a conversation between her husband and the Lord whom he hosted outside. “Sarah your wife shall have a son,” she will hear the Latter say. Her response? “Sarah laughed within herself,” asserts the Sacred Text, a reaction that she will be a tad too quick to disavow when questioned on the matter. “I did not laugh,” she will insist. “No,” the Lord will press the point, “but you did laugh!” (18:9-15).
Later on, right after delivering her son, Sarah will deliver the happy laconism that is the third reference to Isaac’s name: “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me” (21:6). Hers and Abraham’s 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” (18:11).
According to the full Christian understanding of the Holy Scriptures, the joy of Abraham and Sarah at the promised birth of Isaac was burdened with prophecy, for his miraculous begetting foretold a later conception more miraculous still. Isaac was, in truth, a type and pledge of “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). And Mary, mother of this Newer Isaac, having conceived Him in virginity just days before, made perfect her responding song of praise by remembering the mercy that God “spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:55).
Did not Abraham himself anticipate with joy the later coming of that more distant Seed? Surely so, for even our Newer Isaac proclaimed, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Like Moses (5:46), Isaiah (12:41), and David (Matthew 22:43), Abraham was gifted to behold, in mystic vision, the final fulfillment of that primeval word, “But My covenant will I establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21).
In the second century, St. Irenaeus of Lyons expressed thus the mystery inherent in the figure of Isaac: “Abraham, knowing the Father through the Word, who made heaven and earth, confessed Him as God, and taught by a vision that the Son of God would become a Man among men, by whose arrival his seed would be as the stars of heaven, he longed to see that day, so that he too might embrace Christ, as it were; and beholding Him in the Spirit of prophecy, he rejoiced” (Against the Heresies 4.7.1).
Tuesday, January 18
Genesis 18: Two scenes fill this chapter. The first is Abraham’s reception of “the Lord” in the guise of “three men,” whom the Christian Church has always pictured as three angels. These Three were either the prophetic prefiguration or the appearance of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in human/angelic form, according to the earliest Christian readings of the text. Because the prophetic promise given about Isaac in this chapter, as we seen, is definitively fulfilled only in the New Testament, it was appropriate that on that occasion God should appear as that Trinity of distinct Persons, which the New Testament proclaims Him to be.
St. Ambrose of Milan thus commented on this scene in the second half of the fourth century: “Prepared to receive strangers, faithful to God, dedicated to ministering and prompt in His service, Abraham beheld the Trinity in a type. He supplemented hospitality with religious fealty, when beholding the Three he worshipped the One, and preserving the distinction of the Persons, he addressed One Lord, offering to Three the honor of his gift, while acknowledging but a single Power. It was not learning that spoke in him but grace, and although he had not learned, he believed in a way superior to us who have learned. Since no one had distorted the representation of the truth, he sees the Three but worships the Unity. He offers three measures of fine meal while slaying but one victim, considering that a single sacrifice is sufficient but a triple gift; a single victim, but a threefold offering” (Faith in the Resurrection 2.96).
The second scene is Abraham’s supplication on behalf of Sodom, where Lot resides. Knowing that the Lord is prepared to destroy that city for its wickedness, and fearing for the welfare of his nephew and his family, Abraham bravely endeavors to “arrange a deal” with the Lord, in hopes of having the city spared. In one of the most colorful scenes in a very colorful book, Abraham plays the part of the Bedouin trader, a type commonly met in the Middle East, attempting to arrange a lower price by the process of haggling. Particularly good in this art, Abraham works from a “price” of fifty just men down to a mere ten. He thus serves as the very model of fervent intercessory prayer, unafraid of “pressing a point” with God. Alas, Abraham knows that there are not even ten just men left in Sodom. Before he can suggest a lower figure, however, the Lord abruptly breaks off the negotiations and departs (verse 33). Sodom is doomed.
Wednesday, 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).
Abraham’s nephew Lot was no good judge of neighborhoods. First, there was Sodom. With the whole Promised Land from which to choose, “Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom” (Genesis 13:12). It was a perfectly awful choice. Hardly had Lot and his family moved in when a group of Bedouin kings came and raided the place, taking the whole bunch of them captive (14:1-12). Were it not for the prompt intervention of Uncle Abraham, that probably would have been the last we heard of Lot (14:13-17).
In addition, Sodom was hardly a salubrious place to live, because “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the Lord” (13:13). We know that Lot did not enjoy living there. The Scriptures speak of “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 2:7).
Why, then, did Lot continue to live in such a vile place? He seems to have been one of those many people who, once they have settled down somewhere, are reluctant to move away, long after the situation has proven itself hopeless. Such souls are excessively fond of the familiar, the sort of folk who imagine all manner of evil that may befall them if they should change neighborhoods. “I cannot escape to the mountains,” insisted Lot, “lest some evil overtake me and I die” (19:19). If anyone in Holy Scripture, however, should ever have heeded the warning, “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4), surely that man was Lot.
Still, Lot stayed put in Sodom, until almost too late. That time of crisis that Jesus called “the days of Lot” (Luke 17:28) had well nigh run its course. Loudly sounded, even now, the hour of overthrow. The brimstone was ready, with the pitch pots boiling to the brim, and the rescuing angels were urging Lot to hurry: “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed in the punishment of the city. . . . Escape for your life! . . . Escape to the mountains, lest you be destroyed!” (Genesis19:15,17)
Second, there was Zoar. Even as he fled from Sodom, Lot already began to miss the old neighborhood and was reluctant to move too far away! When the angels pressed him to flee to the mountains, he begged them for a compromise. How about Zoar, little Zoar, not far from Sodom? “See now,” Lot pleaded pathetically, “this city is near enough to flee to; and it is a little one; please let me escape there (is it not a little one?) and my soul shall live” (19:20).
So Lot moved to Zoar, and his soul did live, but not his wife’s, alas. Zoar was simply too proximate to Sodom, and it was not safe for Lot’s family to remain so immediate to the scene of the overthrow. His wife succumbed to the temptation to “look back,” in spite of the angelic admonition not to do so (19:17,26). Her backward glance to Sodom became, for all time, the symbol of those unwilling to put sufficient distance between themselves and sin. Her punishment stands forever as a portent to God’s people: “Remember Lot’s wife!” (Luke 17:32).
In spite of the unflattering picture of him in these biblical stories, Lot is remembered in the Bible as a righteous man. As we have seen, the Apostle Peter uses the word “righteous” three times in the two verses he devotes to Lot. In this respect Peter followed the example of the Wisdom of Solomon, which spoke thusly of Lot: “When the ungodly perished, [Wisdom] delivered the righteous man, who fled from the fire which fell upon the five cities. Of such wickedness, even to this day, the smoking wasteland is a testimony, and plants bearing salt that never come to ripeness; and a standing pillar of salt is a monument of an unbelieving soul” (10:6-7).
One observes that when the Bible calls Lot righteous, the term is somewhat relative; that is, he is called righteous by way of contrast with those around him, whether his wife or the citizens of Sodom. It is largely in this contrast that Lot is held forth as a model. In the words of St. John of Mount Sinai (in the sixth century), “So we had better imitate Lot, and certainly not his wife” (Ladder of Divine Ascent 3).
Thursday, January 20
Genesis 20: Abimelech, the king of Gerar, had an appreciative eye for handsome women. True, 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 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 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 (Genesis 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. This was not smooth. 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 in very bad form. Honestly, 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 gave 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, turned sour right away: “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘Indeed, you are a dead man because the woman you have taken 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).
As I remarked earlier, Abimelech learned from the experience. Some years later Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, came to settle at Gerar with his beautiful wife Rebekah. Once again, Isaac tried to pass Rebekah off as his “sister”; she was, in fact, a cousin. This time, however, chary Abimelech did not bite. He simply kept a watchful eye on the couple, until one day he “looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac showing endearment to Rebekah his wife” (26:6-8). “Aha, I knew it,” thought he to himself, “I just knew it; you just can’t be too careful these days.”
Friday, January 21>
Genesis 21: 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 (verse 4), commanded in Genesis 17:9-14), would be explicitly mentioned by St. Stephen in Acts 7:8.
In Genesis 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 that they were.
Ishmael is accused of “scoffing” at the younger child Isaac, perhaps a reference to the kinds of teasing that 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 “that slave girl’s son” (verse 10). In Sarah’s eyes he has become a non-entity. Abraham is faced with a new problem, therefore. Although Ishmael is not Sarah’s son except in a purely legal sense that no longer bore 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 (verse 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, found 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. Thus, according to the Bible the Arabs too are a great nation, close relatives of the Jews and regarded as their rather bellicose cousins (Genesis 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 bellicosity of the Arab.
Saturday, January 22>
Genesis 22: Genesis 22, which narrates Abraham’s obedience to God in sacrificing his son Isaac, provides a singular example of a trial of faith. In the preceding chapter God had promised Abraham that his true posterity would come through Isaac (Genesis 21:12), but now He commands him to offer up his “only son,” this same Isaac, as a holocaust (22:2).
It is important to the dramatic structure of this story that Abraham does not know he is being tried. Nor does Isaac. Indeed, only God and the reader know it (22:1). In this respect, the story of Abraham resembles the Book of Job, where the reader, but not Job, is instructed that a trial is taking place. In the case of the Abraham story, this notice to the reader is absolutely essential, because both the Jew and the Christian know that the God of the Bible hates human sacrifice. A trial of faith, on the other hand, is exactly what we should expect from the God of the Bible (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-7).
Abraham’s obedience to the command is both immediate and unquestioning. It is not that Abraham is bashful. The reader, recalling Abraham’s earlier “haggling” with the Lord on that business of Sodom and the plight of his nephew Lot (18:16-33), knows that this ancient Semite is not the least bit inhibited about speaking his mind to the Almighty. On the other hand, the reader also notes that when Abraham receives a direct order from God (12:1-4), his obedience is prompt and without reservation. It is the same here. Abraham consistently demonstrates that the real test of faith is obedience (cf. James 2:20-24).
Thus Abraham and Isaac, father and son, climb the mountain of sacrifice (Genesis 22:6). In the enigmatic conversation between the two climbers (22:7-8), the attentive Bible-reader perceives a rich mystery concealed in Abraham’s reply that “God Himself will provide the victim for the sacrifice.” Truly He will! Abraham’s words are a prophecy of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Isaac himself, however, says nothing in reply (22:9-10). Indeed, Isaac remains entirely silent after Abraham speaks. He is like a sheep led to the slaughter that opens not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7). Although the concentration of the story is directed at Abraham, we must not lose sight of Isaac, who prefigures in this story the mystery of our redemption.
We discern this mystery in the victim substituted for Isaac, the ram caught by its horns. This is the Bible’s first instance of a “substitution” made in the matter of sacrifice. This ram caught in the bush foreshadows, first of all, the paschal lamb of the Mosaic Covenant, which would be slaughtered on behalf of Israel’s firstborn sons on the night of the Exodus. Here in Genesis 22, then, we are dealing with the Bible’s earliest configuration of a category important in biblical soteriology.
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 (in the second century): “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).
Hence, Isaac carrying the wood up the sacrificial hill has always signified to Christian readers—at least since a paschal homily of Melito of Sardis in the second century—the willingness of God’s own Son to take up the Cross and carry it to the place of immolation.
One of our earliest Christian references to Isaac also stresses the mystery of the Resurrection. Abraham’s obedience in offering Isaac, according to Hebrews 11:17-19, was based on a conviction that “God was able to raise him up, even from the dead.” Hence, in receiving Isaac back again, Abraham enacted a “parable” of the future. The “parable” of this event indicates its prophetic sense, according to which God, in the Resurrection, received back His only Son, whom He had handed over in sacrifice for our redemption.