What Every Christian Should Know About Genesis 13-18

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This week we covered the beginnings of Abraham and Sarah’s story, and took in some of the lessons that these incredible biblical texts have to offer. If you missed a few of the posts, but want to keep up with us, here is a synopsis of each of the lessons:

In Waiting on God, we looked at the role of Abram in Genesis 15 and 16. We saw how God went out of His way in chapter 15 to reassure Abram that he would have an heir and a great nation. However, in the following chapter, we watched Abram take the situation into his own hands by hastily impregnating Sarai’s servant, Hagar, in an attempt to bring about God’s promises. We discussed how difficult it can be to wait on God, especially when the stakes are so high, and found encouragement to have patience when waiting for God to fulfill His promises.

We then looked at the story of Hagar in When God Meets Us In Our Grief. We watched as tension grew between Sarai and Hagar, her servant whom Abram impregnated. As a result, Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away into the desert. While this pregnant, homeless slave mourned her mistreatment, God appeared to her to offer comfort. He asked, “Hagar, where do you come from and where are you going?” and as He sat with her, He named her son “God hears” (yishmael) and Hagar named God, “God sees” (El Roi). We marveled at God’s ability to show up for us in our most vulnerable and lost moments as well.

The following day we watched as God created a covenant with Abram in Covenant and Calling. We saw how God created the covenantal relationship with Abram, changing his name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah. Just after God established His covenant with Abraham, God then began growing the vision for how their relationship would change the world. We discussed what it means for our relationship with God to not only transform our own lives, but also the world around us.

Finally, in When God Answers Prayer, we looked at Genesis 18, when God and two other men appeared to Abraham and they began discussing the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. We watched Abraham slowly talk God down from His plan to destroy the land. We then considered how our prayers impact the heart of God, acknowledging that God said in Genesis 18 that he hears cries of injustice. We defined prayer as communing with God, and emphasized how important it is to converse with God about how we are feeling and what we are experiencing.

In the coming week we will start in Genesis 19, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which people have used in both helpful and very harmful ways throughout history. We will move forward from there. Thank you for joining me on this journey!


For those of you keeping up with our Hebrew study, here are the vocabulary words for this week:

avram — exalted father, also the name of Abram

avraham — father of a multitude, also the name of Abraham

saray — princess, also the name of Sarai

sarah — noblewoman, also the name of Sarah

hagar — the stranger, also the name of Hagar

ishah — wife, Hagar becomes a second-tier wife to Abram

yishmael — God hears, also the name if Ishamel

El Roi — God sees, or God who sees, what Hagar names God in the wilderness

 

When God Answers Prayer

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When I worked as a chaplain people often asked me about prayer. They wondered whether God really listens, whether our prayers can change outcomes, and why God listens to prayer if He already has a plan. These are big and important questions, and while it’s easy to begin postulating about the answers, we can more helpfully respond by looking at the Bible.

In Genesis 18, while Abraham is resting in his tent, God and two other men appear. Abraham offers them food, water, and hospitality. While they’re visiting, the Lord states again that Sarah will birth Isaac, and she laughs (Gen. 18:1-15). Then, after they rest for some time, Abraham, the Lord, and the two men get up and walk over to look at Sodom.

This is where the interaction between God and Abraham gets especially interesting. You can read the full text here, but in Genesis 18:15-32, God decides to inform Abraham about his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God says, “I will go down now to examine the cries of injustice that have reached me. Have they really done all this? If not, I want to know” (v. 21).

So God has heard the weeping and the cries of those who have been treated unjustly, and He feels so upset about their cries that he intends to wipe out the land. 

Abraham intervenes by bartering with God. Over the course of the following ten verses, he slowly persuades God to not destroy the land. He begins asking if God will destroy the land if he can find fifty innocent people in it, and when God says he won’t destroy the land under those conditions, Abraham asks if God will destroy it with forty-five innocent people. God slowly begins agreeing that He won’t destroy the city, given Abraham’s conditions.

The funniest part of the text, in my opinion, are these little lines that Abraham throws in during their negotiations to ensure that he doesn’t upset God. He says things like, “even though I am soil and ash,” “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord,” and “let me speak just once more.” He wants to ensure that he doesn’t push God too far with his requests, and ultimately, it pays off. By the end of the chapter, God has agreed that if He can find ten innocent people, He won’t destroy the cities.

Isn’t this such a fascinating interaction? As Abraham made requests of God, God listened, evaluated, saw the merit in Abraham’s points, and agreed with him. It’s conversational. 

More and more often I hear people say that talking to God just doesn’t “feel right,” or they find that silence is more effective than discussion. While I respect quietness and peacefulness, and at times think they’re helpful forms of prayer, I’m also Italian and have far more of a preference for conversation. And based on the Bible, I think God likes conversation as well, because God values our feelings and opinions.

Prayer isn’t too complicated: it’s the decision to commune with God. While prayer can take place in powerful ways through the church, worship, and meditation, it can also take place while you’re washing dishes and telling God about your day. We may not have the benefit of God walking around with us in a human body, as Abraham did, but we certainly have the Holy Spirit living in us and with us, as the ever-present marker of God. 

May we take time to pray today, intentionally remembering that God listens and cares. In those moments when we feel like God is especially quiet and distant, may we pray what we can, knowing that we’re never truly alone. And finally, may we find strength and encouragement today, knowing that the Lord uses both prayers of hope and despair to bless our lives, as well as the world around us.

Covenant and Calling

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Do you remember the first time you felt belonging with God? That feeling that God is with you, listening to you, and knowing you very deeply? When I was ten years old I remember laying under the stars and feeling for the first time that I could talk with God, that He would eagerly listen, and that I belonged with him.

Starting in Genesis 12, we see Abram belonging with God. God makes grand promises, leads Abram and Sarai to a variety of lands, and communes with Hagar in the desert. Then, when we arrive at chapter 17, Abram and God establish an even closer and deeper relationship through covenant.

After we leave chapter 16, we know that thirteen years pass before we pick up with chapter 17. We learn that Abram is 99 years old when God calls to him, explains that He will make a covenant with Abram, and that Abram will have innumerable descendants. God changes Abram’s name from Abram (avram), meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham (avraham), meaning “father of a multitude.” God also changes the name of Sarai (saray), meaning “princess,” to Sarah (sarah), meaning “noblewoman.”

In creating the covenant, we see an identity transformation occur. The Exalted Father becomes the Father of a Multitude; the Princess becomes a Noblewoman. Belonging to and with God changes who Abram and Sarai are, and what they represent to the world.

After that transformation occurs, God then promises Abraham that Sarah will birth a child for him, despite her being 99 years old. Abraham experienced such disbelief as to laugh at God, which then inspired his son’s name, Isaac (yitsaq), meaning “he laughs.” God promises that Isaac will carry on the covenant and become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.

So once God transforms Abraham and Sarah, establishing a covenantal relationship with them, God then begins expanding it. He establishes that they belong to Him, and then He paints a picture of how their covenant will grow to impact the whole world. He instructs Abraham to circumcise all of the males in the household, and gives him other key directives about what needs to happen in order for them to maintain their covenant relationship. And with those instructions, God then shows Abraham all of the powerful ways He will use their relationship.

Finding a sense of belonging with God is such a special and sacred moment. We must savor our feelings of being found, known, and loved, and we must remind ourselves of that deep and endless relationship constantly. And after we have found our belonging in God, we must then open our ears to listen to what He has in store for us.

God can use us to transform the world, or at least the worlds of those around us. If we listen to His directions, and take the steps to continue following Him, we can watch the transformation of lives take place. This was never meant to be an insular relationship, one in which God changes us and we merely sit with Him for the rest of our days. Rather, God wants to use us as His hands and feet in the world. And if we allow Him to do that, we will create greater change than we ever could have dreamed before.

Let’s be found in Him today. And then open our hearts and hands, stand up, and follow Him.

When God Meets Us In Our Grief

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Yesterday, in the post Waiting On God, we looked at Genesis 15, in which God informs Abram very clearly that Abram will have an heir that will develop into a very large nation. We discussed Abram’s subsequent decision in Genesis 16 to take his wife’s servant, Hagar, and impregnate her, in an effort to bring about the promise God made to him.

Today I want us to focus on Hagar. People often have a very negative view of Hagar, regarding her as the subpar-Sarai who birthed the “wrong son.” If we look closer at the life of Hagar, though, we see a far different picture.

At the beginning of Genesis 16, we learn that Sarai is unable to have children, so she instructs Abram to take her servant, Hagar, and see if she will provide him children. I should note here that having a servant bear children on behalf of a couple was not abnormal at the time; in fact, we see the same scenario with Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah in Genesis 30. Abram also takes Hagar as his “wife” (ishah), which was common as well. Sarai then remains the principal wife, and Hagar becomes a second-tier wife.

Abram impregnates Hagar, and we learn that Hagar begins snubbing or “no longer respecting” Sarai. Sarai confronts Abram about Hagar’s behavior, and Abram tells her to treat Hagar however she wishes. And this is where the text gets violent: Sarai acts so harshly toward Hagar that Hagar runs away, into the desert.

Imagine that: Hagar is a pregnant servant with nowhere to go, and Sarai treats her so harshly that she decides running away into the wilderness is safer than staying in her home. Her treatment was that unbearable.

And then, when Hagar is as lost and abandoned as she’s ever been, God shows up. “Hagar! Sarai’s servant! Where did you come from and where are you going?” The Lord visits her and asks the questions that all of us need to ponder when we’re feeling lost and afraid: Where did you come from? Where are you going?

She explains her predicament, and God tells her to return to Sarai’s house, promising to give her innumerable heirs.

God then discusses Ishmael. He says, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You will name him Ishmael because the Lord has heard about your harsh treatment.” The name Ishamel (yishmael) means “God hears.” It’s as though Ishmael, who God describes as being “a wild mule of a man,” will also testify to God’s witness of Hagar’s harsh treatment simply with his name. The trials of Hagar will never be forgotten, so long as Ishmael’s name is known.

Hagar then calls God “El Roi,” meaning “God who sees” or “God whom I’ve seen.” Frankly, both translations work: God saw her torment and struggle, and Hagar also saw God while in the wilderness. She then returns to Sarai and Abram, and births Ishmael.

I don’t know why we so often brush over this story. The encounter between Hagar, a lower class servant who is hurt and afraid, and God happens in such an intimate and powerful way. God sees and hears her pain, witnesses all of it, and in the end extends promises and hope to her while she is lost in the wilderness. 

God finds Hagar, the lowly servant of Abram and Sarai, in the midst of her deepest moments of pain and sorrow, which gives us hope that God can find us as well. God doesn’t only care for those with status, fame, perfection, and chosenness — God cares for all of us. He witnesses our struggles and frustration, knows when others treat us harshly, and is willing to sit with us when we’re hurting.

So may we turn to God today. May we bring our burdens before Him, knowing that He already sees them and hears them. May we know that God is powerful enough and compassionate enough to hold all of sadness and grief. And may we let Him sit with us today.

Waiting On God

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I am not the best at waiting. I know some people who can sit in ambiguity and uncertainty, let it wash over them, and they remain peaceful and calm the entire time. My first instinct, instead, is to become more like the Tasmanian Devil, spinning fast without any particular trajectory, unaware of the mess that I’m creating in the meantime. I have to be so intentional about slowing down, focusing on specific goals, and trusting that God will bring the best outcome to fruition.

We watch Abram struggle to wait in Genesis 15 and 16 as well. Up until this point, God has indicated to Abram that Abram will have an heir and create a great nation (see Gen. 12); however, by chapter 15, Abram has aged quite a bit, and wonders whether he will actually create the nation God promised.

Recognizing Abram’s doubts, God gives Abram a vision in which God says, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great” (Gen. 15:1). As an aside: the phrase “Don’t be afraid” shows up 93 times throughout the Bible — it’s a continual directive for us to choose peacefulness over anxiousness, and calm over worry.

Then, throughout the rest of Genesis 15, God gives Abram a number of signs and promises that Abram will in fact have a heir. God moves beyond hinting and whispering, and instead demonstrates to Abram that he needs to trust God’s plan.

Abram’s actions in Genesis 15 and 16 remind me of a scene in Bruce Almighty. Bruce is driving down the highway, and a truck pulls out in front of him carrying road signs that say, “Wrong Way,” “Stop,” and “Dead End.” Rather than reading the signs, though, Bruce gets frustrated that the truck is driving slowly, speeds around it, and ultimately wrecks his own car.

I’m not suggesting that Abram gets into a car wreck because of his decisions in Genesis 16, but he certainly makes the situation far more complicated than it needs to be. 

After chapter 15, in which God shows up to Abram in a very tangible way to try to convince him of God’s faithfulness in providing an heir, Abram then takes Hagar, Sarai’s servant, and impregnates her. In a strange way, Abram may have thought that he was taking action to fulfill God’s will by impregnating Hagar, since ultimately, she births his child. However, God had planned all along for Sarai to birth Abram’s son.

Abram got hasty and impatient. He knew the promises God had for him, but rather than accept them and trust that God would fulfill them in God’s time, Abram intervened. We will get into the story of Hagar tomorrow, but for now I want us to dwell in the understanding that Abram’s doubt led him to act in a way that did not further God’s ultimate plan (Sarai still gets pregnant later on), and that created a lot of turmoil for a number of people.

Like I said in the beginning, I struggle with patience. I have a very Type-A, assertive personality, and when others don’t follow schedules and plans, I can get antsy. I have had many times in my life when I knew God had an idea of what would happen next, but I couldn’t see the full picture yet. In those moments, I could choose to either pout, cry, and question God, or I could sit back, rest, and know that God works all things together for the good (Rom. 8:28).

What are the things you’re waiting and hoping for right now? What has God promised that you want to see fulfilled? In the midst of life’s pauses, we have the decision to fill the space with busyness, anxiety, and futile work, or we can stop, rest, and listen to the words God has for us. May we strengthen ourselves to have patience today, and know that God is faithful.

What Every Christian Should Know About Genesis 9-13

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We had another exciting week studying the stories of Genesis. We started in Genesis 8 and moved through Genesis 13.

In our first post, Stewardship, Politics, and Genesis 9, we looked at the complex commands that God gave to Noah and his descendants: “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the Earth. All of the animals on the earth will fear you and dread you—all the birds in the skies, everything crawling on the ground, and all of the sea’s fish. They are in your power. Everything that lives and moves will be your food. Just as I gave you the green grasses, I now give you everything” (Gen. 9:1-3). We examined how people have stretched biblical texts to fulfill their own political purposes. We then identified how we can responsibly integrate the Bible into our own lives and worlds.

The following post, Subtle Reminders, looked at the covenant that God established with Noah after the flood. We discussed those moments we experience in creation that remind us of God’s love and promises. Genesis describes how the rainbow is a natural marker of God’s covenant with us, and one of the commentators pointed out that there is a rainbow every day in Hawaii. We can feel and witness God’s covenant with us in creation and in so many other ways every day.

Finding God At Babel allowed us to look at the story of Babel and see God protecting humanity, rather than fearing it. Often people interpret the story of the Tower of Babel to mean that God felt insecure about how wise and crafty humanity had become, which led to His decision to scatter their languages and locations. Reading the passage in context, however, we remember Genesis 8, when God promised to never destroy creation again. In an effort to hold true to his promise, God realized that we needed boundaries to prevent the sort of straying that had taken place before the Flood. We finished by naming our call to live out the full potential that God has placed within us, and celebrating God’s willingness to provide us with guidance and strength along the way.

Finally, in When our Heroes Let Us Down, we studied the story of Abraham: the one who we laud as our father, our patriarch, and who also made some grave mistakes. In both Genesis 12 and in Genesis 20, he instructs his wife to pretend she’s his sister in an effort to protect his own life. Abraham abandons Sarah to the Pharaoh and to King Abimelech, both of whom experience the impact of his lie and confront Abraham about it. Sarah then returns to Abraham, and in both scenarios Abraham leaves wealthier than ever before. Sometimes our heroes let us down. They fail to meet our expectations for how they should behave, and leave us wondering why they made the choices they did. In the midst of disappointment, the most constructive action we can take is to acknowledge our own shortcomings, request forgiveness from God and from others, and offer forgiveness as well.

We got into some gritty texts this week. In the coming week, we will start with Genesis 14 and move forward into even more complicated, trying, and fascinating texts. Out of these we will learn lessons about how we can live with greater peace and reconciliation with God and others.


peru urevu umelu — be fertile, multiply, and fill the earth; God’s command in Gen. 8

queshet — bow; used to signify a rainbow in Gen. 8

ra — evil, bad, mischievous; God’s description of people’s ideas in Gen. 8

balal — to confuse or mix up; what God does to the language at Babel in Gen. 11

When Our Heroes Let Us Down

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While hosting Saturday Night Live on March 12, pop star Ariana Grande sang a song in her opening monologue, entitled, “What Will My Scandal Be?” She describes how so many other celebrities and pop stars have had scandals in their careers, but she hasn’t had hers yet. It seems like at some point or another, the celebrities that we see on TV and hear on the radio behave poorly, and their mistakes then go viral.

This doesn’t only take place in the realm of pop music, though. Many of those who we admire, including pastors, politicians, and even whole organizations, eventually let us down.

In the text for today, we see one of the most beloved biblical characters behave in a more than questionable manner. And worse, he then repeats his mistake again. In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai are in the land of Canaan when a famine strikes. They then traverse to Egypt to escape the famine, and upon arrival, Abram informs Sarai that when the Egyptians see how beautiful she is, they will kill him to take her. Abram instructs her to tell them she is his sister, so that he may live. And sure enough, when Pharaoh’s princes see how beautiful Sarai is, they take her to Pharaoh and give Abram a lot of animals and wealth as compensation.

We never hear Sarai’s voice in this text. Abram has just acted egregiously toward her, and yet we never hear her objections, and we never learn what happened to her while in Pharaoh’s household. Instead, the Lord acts on Sarai’s behalf. He strikes Pharaoh’s house with plagues, which then cause Pharaoh to realize that Sarai was actually Abram’s wife. He then chastises Abram, sends Sarai back to him, and expels them both from Egypt, along with all of the goods Abram acquired because of Sarai.

Abandoning his wife to Pharaoh made Abram very wealthy. This is one of those moments when one of my biblical heroes lets me down. I wonder how the beloved Abram could possibly treat his wife with such flippancy and irreverence. And I feel heartbroken for the beloved Sarai, who experienced abandonment by her husband, and then endured God knows what (literally) at the hands of Pharaoh. And while we may read this text and abhor Abram’s behavior, the lesson he should have learned didn’t stick.

When we arrive in Genesis 20, Abram (turned Abraham at this point) commits the exact same atrocity. Abraham and Sarah enter the land of Gerar; Abraham tells King Abimelech that Sarah is his sister, and Abimelech takes her to his house. The Lord intervenes in a dream, informing Abimelech that Sarah is Abraham’s wife. In this instance, we know that “Abimelech hadn’t gone near her” (v. 4). Abimelech confronts Abraham, gives him Sarah and a whole host of animals and wealth, and tells Abraham to dwell anywhere in his land.

We watch the exact same cycle happen again, and it doesn’t play out poorly for Abraham: he leaves with wealth and prosperity each time. 

Sometimes we have to raise our eyebrows at the behavior even of biblical characters. Abraham was so faithful to God in so many other circumstances, but in these two texts, his behavior disappoints God, his wife, and frankly, me as a reader.

These biblical figures lived complex lives. While we should honor them for all of the ways they were faithful to God and built up the faith that we now share, we also must recognize their humanness and flaws as well. 

The most redemptive part about messing up is the moment in which we choose never to make that mistake again. Abraham didn’t learn that lesson in these texts. In response, we must foster awareness of the ways that we can worship God more purely and truly, acknowledge our weaknesses and failures, and reconcile ourselves with those who feel the impact of our mistakes as well.

As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Today, may we accept the forgiveness and grace of God, may we ask for forgiveness from others, and may we extend grace and love to those around us as well.