Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar cont.

I received a question on my last blog post, and I started writing a very voluminous answer such that I decided to just post it as a new post, for more visibility. The question is with respect to the "conflicting instructions" that were given to Abraham, and essentially how should Abraham have responded to the situation he was placed in.

"but God also asked Abraham to have a child that he could only have by having intercourse out of wedlock, then should we conclude that God was expecting Abraham to use his judgment as to reconcile the conflicting instructions in a manner most consistent with honoring God?"

Calling it conflicting instructions is a bit of a stretch. God never "instructed" anybody regarding Sarah's barrenness, it was simply a noted fact. Here's the order of events with Abraham/Sarah/Hagar:

God says, you will have a son (to Abraham), specifically saying "of your own body" meaning his physical descendant, but not necessarily Sarah's;

"Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children";

Sarah then offers for Abraham to sleep with Hagar, to "build a family through [my maidservant]", which Abraham does having a son;

13 years later, God comes again and says that Abraham will have a son through Sarah, and that he would be the 'child of the promise', that is, the son that God had promised to Abraham at the beginning.

So like I said, there was no instruction for Sarah to not have a child, it's really more like reconciliation of the promise (you will have a son) with its apparent non-fulfillment (Sarah was barren). In that situation, at Sarah's suggestion Abraham slept with Hagar to produce the son they were expecting, and 13 years later God comes in and clarifies that the son he had (Ishmael) was not the son promised before (although God doesn't say this directly, many commentators implicitly read it from what God does say about Isaac)

This is where I think a lot of commentators come into disagreement, over this question: did Abraham sin by sleeping was Hagar? I think there are a lot of valid perspectives on this question, one of which I raised (the issue of marriage being between one man and one woman), but there are many other perspectives about how Abraham should have responded to the promise, should he have just waited for Sarah to have a child when they thought it was impossible? Etc.

Nevertheless, it seems inaccurate to say that God gave conflicting instructions, but there is definitely a conflict between promise and reality. This is a very common theme in the bible, and it's very much related to the issue of faith, or as Paul puts it, the "things visible" and "things invisible" (2 Cor 4:18). How does one reconcile the unseen promise ("I am with you", Matt 28:20) with the present reality (I don't see Jesus right now)? It's a very deep subject that I'm not really going to address, other than to say that this is very related to Abraham's situation.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Abraham, the friend of God

I'll try to keep this one brief because of time constraints, but God spoke to me recently about Abraham. The chief phrase that came to my mind is, Abraham is a friend of God.

Abraham lived in a time before the bible was written, in a life completely devoid of Judeo-Christian traditions, churches, denominations, etc. The only pattern of worship or prayer he had ever seen was essentially pagan in nature (that is, polytheistic and possibly tribal in nature; nothing like modern Christianity). So I was absolutely fascinated to see how Abraham relates to God, because Abraham as the "father of the faith" lived an Adam-like life of breaking new ground, being the first in a new tradition. Unlike Adam though, we are given numerous accounts from his life, whereas Adam has almost nothing written about his life (he appears in Genesis 2 and is dead by Genesis 5, while Abraham has about 13 chapters devoted to his life from Genesis 12 to 25).

So Abraham is a great person to study to see how a man ascribed as a great man of faith relates to God, without the influence of hollow religious traditions in the same way that modern Christians have to discern between things from God and meaningless Christian traditions. Of course, I'm not trying to say that all traditions are meaningless or negative, but simply that one must practice discernment to see where traditions truly represent the nature and will of God, and where traditions come from human or political origins. E.g., is a given tradition one that was put into place to build a political system or to perpetuate human systems, or to establish the kingdom of God on earth and in that culture?

One example of a human tradition would be the biblical interpretations of Noah's cursing Ham/Canaan as a justification of Europeans enslaving Africans. It was a theological position used to justify a human, economic system that does not represent God's will. Over time, it hybridized Christianity with the economic system of slavery, such that even to this day atheists or skeptics will quote slavery as an example of the failings of Christianity.

Anyway, what does one see in the life of Abraham that speaks of his faith? One thing is clear, he builds a lot of altars. He sees God frequently, and he speaks with God face to face. He honored God when the Lord visited him with two angels, and then he petitioned God, face to face, to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there were 10 righteous men there. All of these deserve long discussions, but I don't have the time.

What I was thinking about tonight was Abraham's affair with Hagar. It is a very perplexing event to me, for a couple reasons. First, God never speaks for nor against Abraham's relationship with Hagar. Nowhere in scripture does it say that Abraham did well or sinned by his relationship with Hagar. We know that the child of the promise is Isaac, but God blesses Ishmael. That's perhaps what perplexes me the most, because we know that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve, so God did not intend for a man to have more than one wife, but he nevertheless blessed Ishmael.

What I see when I think of this is a very complex social situation. People will argue that Abraham sinned or that he didn't sin, but what's clear to me is that it's a very difficult situation, as the outcome shows. It leads to strife between Hagar and Sarah, it leads Sarah to accuse Abraham of doing wrong (even though it was her idea), and ultimately it leads to Hagar's expulsion from Abraham's camp. After that, the Ishmaelites occasionally collide with the Israelites, and the Ishmaelites are described as being "wild", and "against everyone". So the end result seems to be a lot of strife, and God is involved in almost a neutral position (he blesses Ishmael, he blesses Isaac).

So what I see when I read this is, Abraham's heart towards God never waivered. In the midst of this difficult situation, trying to fulfill a promise of God (you will have a son) by human means (sleeping with Hagar), God still blesses Ishmael, and he blesses Abraham to still have the son of the promise. Abraham was not in an easy situation but in his heart he stayed true to God.

God bless you (the reader), and may you be filled with wisdom and understanding about this topic.