We now take a step backwards, having covered the text pertinent to Sodom and Gomorrah, we go back to the visitation of the angels, announcement of Isaac’s conception, and Abraham’s other child, Ishmael. Hang in there, because this is a long one.
To begin this study we go back to the moment just after Lot makes his fateful decision to settle in the Jordan valley, leaving Abram to move his people to the land on Canaan. To place this, Lot has settled in the fertile valley at the southern end of the Dead Sea, while Abram settles in the mountainous regions to the west. Life was harsher there, but the people more hospitable, not much different than today’s world of crowded cities versus the rural areas. In my travels I have typically found people friendliest where the daily life is harshest, perhaps because they have a greater need for reliance on other people; but I digress.
After Lot departs the Lord appears to Abram and tells him to look all around, everything he sees the Lord promises to Abram. Now, understand, Abram is standing high up in the mountainous lands, so he can see quite far…right down into the Jordan valley where Lot is headed. So, even though Lot has chosen to settle in the Jordan, God promises that this land will also belong to Abram.
Additionally, the Lord promises to Abram something worth more than all the land he sees…descendents. One cannot imagine how important descendents were to people during Abram’s time, something we just can’t easily understand. The larger the number of your descendents the more likely your name will be carried on throughout history, the wealth you have accumulate will be passed on, the less likely your tribe is to disappear into the annals of history. To have so many descendents that they cannot be counted is the greatest gift a man of Abram’s time could be given! Especially with the advanced age of himself (75 when he started his sojourn) and his wife, Sarai (Sarai is past childbearing age), both had long given up hope of having children.
Next we go into the war where Lot was captured and Abram, along with his tribe, rescues Lot. Consider this, Abram is well into his 80’s by this time, and off he goes to war to save his nephew, who intentionally left Abram with the lesser of the two tracts of land. Now that’s family loyalty. Lot, again, leaves Abram and goes back to the Jordan valley, and Abram has his meeting with Melchizedek (see Sodom and Gomorrah for a fuller discussion of these occurrences).
We move now into Chapter 15, and we find Abram and God having a little vis-a-vis about their relationship. Isn’t it amazing how many people from the Old Testament had conversations with the Lord, yet today that kind of relationship is so lacking. In the movie Oh, God! George Burns, as God, makes a very profound statement, “What about all that hoo-ha with the devil awhile ago from that movie? Nobody had any problem believing that the devil took over and existed in a little girl. All she had to do was wet the rug, throw up some pea soup and everybody believed. The devil you could believe, but not God?” That is the way things are today, not just in Hollywood, but among Christians (and others) in general; it’s not difficult to believe that someone has been possessed, but that someone has talked to God? Unthinkable! Insane! Blasphemy! Yet, we read about it in the Bible all the time, from Adam to Paul.
We always hear about how faithful Abram was, but here we see the other side. God promises Abram not only that his descendents will be unending, but that he will give Abram all the land from Egypt to Mesopotamia, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan river, a land area roughly equal in size to the state of Maryland. What does Abram say? Gen 15:8 “Lord, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Fortunately God did not smite him for having the chutzpah to question a promise from God or Israel’s tale may have ended there. God asks Abram to prepare a sacrifice, then Abram enters into a trance (Greek says ἔκστασις, ecstasy, not sleep) and relates a tale to Abram of the future of his people:
Gen 15:13-14 “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
This is a prophesy of what is to befall Israel, but I believe it is also a punishment on Abram for questioning God’s promise. A punishment of being sent to Egypt for four hundred years before they will be allowed to return to the land being given to Abram. After this God repeats his promise of the land that Israel will call home, this time by the names of the peoples currently inhabiting the land. If you think this ends their rebellion against God’s promises, think again.
Not trusting in God’s promise to provide Abram with an heir, Sarai convinces him to take her handmaid, Hagar, and have a child with her. This sounds odd to us, but if you look at it from a modern viewpoint what we are seeing is a surrogate conception, and was perfectly acceptable practice when a wife could not provide children to her husband. The family line must continue. What happens next is that, now that she has conceived we are told that Hagar begins to despise Sarai; Sarai sensing this then implores Abram to do something about it. Abram, not wanting to get between the two of them, tells Sarai to handle it herself, after which Sarai punishes Hagar severely. I know what the text says, but I question it because it doesn’t full ring true. I think that until Hagar conceived, Sarai could always find solace in the thought that maybe this wasn’t her fault; but, now that Abram has had a child with Hagar, Sarai can no longer hide it, she is the fault in Abram not having children. Through this jealousy she decides to drive Hagar away so as not to be confronted, daily, with evidence of her barrenness.
Hagar flees into the wilderness where she encounters an angel, who tells her to go back and put up with the mistreatment. For this God will reward her with a son, and his descendents will be in constant turmoil with everyone, especially Israel. As his descendents are the Arabs and Muslims the prophesy was right. So, Hagar returns and bears Abram a son, Ishmael. Nothing more is said of Hagar’s treatment by Sarai, but we can assume all was not good between them.
Thirteen years later God visits Abram again, this time to fulfill his promise about an heir. While Ishmael was a legitimate heir to Abram, one born to Sarai (according to tradition) would be a more direct heir. There was a pecking order for heirs, and Ishmael would fall out of the number one spot. While Ishmael was a son of Abram, he was also the son of a slave, which held a lower spot than the son of a free woman (Sarai). Fortunately, God looks favorably on Ishmael, it wasn’t his fault that Abram and Sarai didn’t have faith in God’s promise. As with Isaac, Ishmael will be the father of twelve children, and will be the leader of a great people.
It is at this time that God makes his covenant with Abram, changing his name to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. God promises Abraham a son, to be named Isaac, and he was to be the final fulfillment of all God promised the day Abram left everything to follow God. As a sign of this covenant Abraham and every male in his household (including Ishmael) is to be circumcised. This circumcision is to be continued throughout all generations of Abraham’s descendents. According to this, it should also include all of the descendents of Ishmael as well as those of Isaac.
Before closing I would like to put an end to an age-old fallacy. In Gen 18:9-15 the Lord tells Abraham when Sarah will conceive and bear a son. Sarah, listening from inside the tent, hears this and laughs to herself (not out loud). Knowing this the Lord calls her on it and she denies having laughed. Both are right, she did laugh, but not out loud. Now to the fallacy. Somewhere in history the rumor began that Sarah was struck dumb until after Isaac was born as a punishment for having laughed at the Lord’s announcement. This never happened. It is a tale mixed with what happened to Joachim, the father of Mary, when he did not believe that his wife, Anna, would become pregnant in her advanced age.
The Modern Theologian