Genesis 20:1−21:34

August 3rd, 2015| Topic: aBeLOG, Genesis | 0

Genesis 20:1−21:34

The complications of past sin do not preclude God’s work and his blessing, though sin may incur discipline.

The wife/sister episode with which Genesis 20 begins is similar to the incident in Genesis 12. Abraham seeks recourse in deception—again!—to save his own skin (20:11). Even after the two-fold promise that Isaac would be born to Abraham and Sarah (17:16; 18:10–14), Sarah is given away… into the harem of a local ruler. Abraham’s conduct is reprehensible and faithless.

But even in this story of Abraham’s faithlessness, one finds evidence that God’s word does in fact come to pass. God takes action, closing the wombs in Abimelech’s household (20:18), ensuring that there will be no question about paternity if Sarah is to be violated; there would be no issue from the wombs in Abimelech’s harem, and there would be no doubt that Sarah’s child was Abraham’s when she finally conceives.

The center of the episode in Gen 20 recollects the exceeding fear of Abimelech’s household (20:8), because of the potential of “great sin” that their chieftain may have committed (20:9). When Abimelech later accuses Abraham of deception, the latter’s response is completely mistaken. How could Abraham have not seen the “fear of God in this place” (20:11)? In fact, it is expressly noted that the local populace was “very afraid” (20:8). It seems quite clear that it was not Abimelech and his men who did not have this fear of God. Rather, it was Abraham who did not have enough fear of God to trust God to take care of him in this dangerous situation. His was a faith adulterated by fear of the wrong things—not a faith marked by a fear of God.

The events of Genesis 21 occur when Abraham is hundred (21:5). And God’s promises are fulfilled exactly as he had declared. Besides, the threefold reminder of God keeping his word regarding the birth of Isaac is significant: he did “as He had said,” and “as He had promised,” at the time “of which God had spoken” (21:1–2). It is almost as if God, exasperated with Abraham and his immature faith, is trying to catch the patriarch’s attention once and for all: “I am faithful to my word; you can trust me.” A threefold mention of Abraham’s age adds to this thrust (21:2, 5, 7); “Isaac” also echoes three times (21:3, 4, 5). God is clearly making a point about his own faithfulness!

A fast-forward then occurs. At the sensitive time of a celebration for Isaac, some kind of public ridicule seems to have occurred, perhaps disdain on the part of the older son Ishmael (through Hagar) for Isaac. It is likely that Ishmael (and perhaps his mother as well, as in 16:4) is culpable. Sarah, too, is culpable with her harshness: Abraham, by Sarah’s diktat, is to “banish” (21:10) Hagar and her son, and so he, too, is culpable.

But despite the messiness of life and sin all around God is working out his purposes inexorably. He can surely be trusted. That both Ishmael and Isaac are “seeds” testifies to God’s faithfulness to the patriarchal promise; but it is Isaac through whom the descendants of Abraham will be named (21:12) and it will be he who receives the parental inheritance. Nonetheless, Ishmael is blessed, too: he experiences “God’s promise (21:13, 18), provision (21:19), and presence (21:20),” and he generates twelve tribes (25:12–18), all of which again bespeaks the efficacy of the divine word. In short, through the failures of all the protagonists in this story, God continues to accomplish his purposes through these sinful and faithless people, as he continues to do so in our lives today.

[For more detail on this passage see the appropriate section of Genesis: A Theological Commentary for Preachers.]

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