Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 21

Sarah gives birth to a son, strife with Hagar, and peace with Abimelech.

Sarah and Abraham's relief at having a son is obvious and palpable. God has given Sarah laughter, and the oddity yet blessing of a son will cause laughter in those who hear of it. So this gives the duality of sorts in Isaac's name. At first, the laughter was disbelief, surprise or maybe even contempt. But now the laughter is joy or pleasure. What she thought impossible is now realized. When the child is weaned, they hold a great feast in celebration. Clearly Abraham is very pleased.

However, things with Hagar are not fully resolved. Sarah catches Ishmael "mocking". There's a bit of debate about exactly what is going on here, but the NIV translation fills in the blank as "mocking her son Isaac", and I think that's a reasonable interpolation.

Ishmael is, of course, displaced by the birth of Isaac. Isaac is the promised child, and Ishmael is now the discarded first-try and is not loved in the same way by his father Abraham. Also his mother is a slave, and not the honored first wife. So life is perhaps difficult for young Ishmael, who we can calculate to be around 13 years old.

Sarah, at least, is displeased with Ishmael's behavior and demands that he and his mother be driven out. So at last we see the results of Abraham's unfortunate earlier decision. He now has to effectively choose between his two sons, because the strife that began earlier (which, for whatever reason, God chose to reconcile at the time) is proving to be persistent. From Sarah's point of view, she has now borne a son, is no longer in shame or disgrace, and is clearly not interested in having Hagar around anymore. Ishmael is in one sense a competitor with Isaac for Abraham's inheritance, and that is the point that Sarah brings up first. But in another sense, Hagar/Ishmael are a constant reminder of Sarah's earlier barrenness, so that is also possibly an underlying reason for why she wants them removed.

This time things go differently. Instead of God meeting Hagar and telling her to return, God "speaks" to Abraham and tells him to side with Sarah in this matter and remove Hagar/Ishmael. He does so, sending them off into the desert.

Interestingly, while God does not tell Hagar to return, he in fact does meet with her again and provides her a well, a renewable source of water on which she and Ishmael could survive. So he doesn't return her to Abraham, but does provide for her sustenance and as a footnote, Ishmael becomes the father of many nations.

Lastly, this chapter has a bit of political negotiation between Abraham and Abimelech. Abimelech notes Abraham's growing power and demands a non-aggression treaty, in effect. Abraham agrees, but takes the occasion to "complain" about some wells. He's basically asking for some wells to be returned to him. Then he gives him some livestock and they make an oath. Then it is explained this is why the well is called Beersheba. This story is largely paralleled in chapter 26, but I think I will save the discussion for then, because it is relevant to the life of Isaac so I want to have all of the context filled in before discussing the parallels.

And finally, Abraham plants a tree and calls on the name of the LORD, once again demonstrating his piety.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 20

In this chapter, Abraham visits Egypt again and again lies to the king about Sarah.

First off, this is another instance where liberal scholars say that the bible has duplicate accounts of the same event, the first account being in chapter 12. I think I already addressed this, but I don't remember where. Basically, from a literalist point of view, there are enough differences that if you presume the accuracy of the account, it is clearly a second event. But even from a non-literalist point, it doesn't necessarily prove the JEDP because it could just be an artifact of the oral traditions behind the bible. I won't address this further here.

Second, this is the first time Abraham is called a prophet, which is something I wrote about previously with Abraham as the prototype of a prophet. Here we see God call him a prophet when speaking to the king. Just as in Abraham's prior deception, we can reasonably question whether this is the right thing for him to do, and in spite of God protecting him, it appears that Abimelech is behaving better than he is. Abimelech chastises Abraham, and Abraham tries to justify his deception. Abimelech gives him an offering, and Abraham leaves.

So unlike the last time Abraham did this, this king is much more gentle, though he has a divine threat hanging over him so it is perhaps not entirely voluntary. Last time, the king just showed him the door with an armed guard. This time, the king gives him gifts and then actually offers to let him stay.

The bible does not explicitly condemn Abraham's actions, but I would again suggest that Abraham does wrongly here. Also, I am again somewhat surprised that God protects Abraham here. Even though Abraham does not demonstrate his trust in God through his actions, God protects him anyway.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 19

In Genesis 19, Sodom is finally destroyed.

The events that transpire in this chapter have been a long time coming, in a certain sense. We first saw Sodom and Gomorrah mentioned all the way back in Ch. 13, when Lot chose to go off and live there. Back then, we saw Sodom as a picture of great wealth and richness (it was a well-watered land), and indeed that richness is what drew Lot to it. But we also saw that the Sodomites were "exceedingly wicked and sinners against the LORD". And indeed that chapter describes it as "before the LORD destroyed Sodom," so we already knew judgment was coming.

And it is, but not before the angels investigate to find out if the rumors heard in heaven were true. This is an interesting description, and almost seems to mimic a legal proceeding, as if the angels are investigating these alleged crimes. Note that these two angels were the ones accompanying the Lord in the prior chapter when they visited Abraham. So we see a striking contrast between the hospitality of Abraham and Lot versus the criminal intent of the Sodomites.

Lot sitting in the gate implies a position of authority or eldership, and his insistence upon treating the angels well is certainly a demonstration of his "righteousness" mentioned in prior chapters. One could also wonder if perhaps Lot knew about the indiscretion of his fellow townsmen, and wanted to protect these travelers from unwanted advances.

And so around dusk, the men of the town (in fact, it specifies *all* of the men who lived there both young and old) come to rape the two travelers, the angels.

This is the origin of the word "sodomite", to refer to (presumably male) homosexuals. To my knowledge, there are roughly 3 main theories about the "sin of Sodom". This is because, while the bible is clear that Sodom and Gomorrah were wicked, it is not necessarily as clear on what that wickedness was, arguably because they committed a variety of crimes and not any single thing. So rather than say, "the sin of Sodom", it's probably more fair to say, "here is a list of things that are probably sins of Sodom".

The first, traditional theory is homosexuality. It is clear that the men of the town wanted to rape the (ostensibly male) angels. This theory has been discounted by more liberal/progressive theologians, but I think it still has a lot of validity when considered in the context of the OT. In particular, it is completely obvious that to the Israelites, homosexuality is a sin and violation of the Covenantal Law given by Moses. So there can be absolutely no doubt that the Israelites (including the author of Genesis) viewed it very negatively. So it stands to reason that, while it is not perhaps the only sin of Sodom, it is certainly among the list.

Efforts to discount this theory seem (in my experience) to consist of "well, we have identified something else as the sin of Sodom". And I think those alternate theories are reasonable, but do not imply exclusivity from other sin like homosexuality. It's simply wishful thinking to say that the writer of Genesis, or indeed the Lord, would not view their homosexuality as sinful when it is prohibited by the Law that will be given in Deuteronomy. This theory is reinforced by Jude 1:7, which states that " just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh" (NASB). Naturally, progressive theologians challenge the meaning and interpretation of "went after strange flesh" to mean anything but homosexuality. This is commonly reinterpreted to mean "the sin of rape" rather than "the sin of homosexuality". Of course, claiming the latter is not meant to discount the former.

Rape is also obviously a sin under the Mosaic Covenant as well as in the NT. From my perspective, it seems evident that the "strange/other" flesh is a similar reference to the "abandon[ing] the natural function" of Romans 1:26-27. While in isolation I think alternate translations seem reasonable, I think the context is enough to secure the classical interpretation. In particular, we have to consider that *the original Jewish authors would have considered homosexuality a sin*. This is true for both the OT and the NT passages I have quoted. So many of the liberal/progressive reinterpretations work on the basis of condemning *specific subsets of homosexual behavior*, such as homosexual rape or male temple prostitution (a very common reinterpretation). However, the Mosaic Covenant does not make such exceptions, and while surely the NT authors were not living under the Covenant (as Peter discovers in the book of Acts), clearly they would have been strongly influenced by it and would have opposed homosexuality on cultural or historical principles alone.

Now, the progressives might be thinking, "but their cultural preconceptions are not biblically founded! We don't live under the Old Covenant anymore!" This is all correct. However, what is critical is that the author's mentality must be considered when translating a passage like Romans 1 or Jude. You can't just take a set of words, throw them into a complete cultural vacuum, and then presume that what comes out matches the original intent. I think this is an unintentional effect of many progressive translations that depend very heavily on reinterpreting words in the passage on the basis of how they are used elsewhere. This logic is fundamentally flawed because even if the words mean what the progressives say they do, the author's intent in writing the passage provides the contextual meaning of the words, which is what should ultimately determine the proper translation.

Again someone may object, "but what we care about is God's intent, not the author's intent!" And that opens up a whole bag of hermeneutical worms that would be nearly impossible to address here. I partially address this in my introduction to biblical translations, but I will summarize here. We have to capture the author's intent because intent is a critical aspect of translation and interpretation. Simply put, words only have meaning with respect to how they are used and how they are intended. Most words have multiple layers of meaning, and therefore it is impossible to come up with a single, "correct" interpretation without considering which meaning is intended. While one could ostensibly claim to seek "God's intent" in the text, the material fact is that God did not write these physical books, the human authors did. As such, I do not believe we are bound to hold that (from a hermeneutical perspective) what the author intends is necessarily God's viewpoint as well, we are required to use the author's intent when discerning the simple meaning of the expressions present. Among other things, this is because we generally use the bible to inform our viewpoint about God, so if we try to judge the bible based on how we view God, then we end up in a circular reference where we interpret the bible based on our viewpoints, and then proclaim that the bible supports what we believe!

Sadly, this sort of circular logic is going to be present almost regardless of what we do because of the irrepressible human tendency to view the world (including the bible) through the lens of our preconceptions. To the best of my knowledge, there is no natural solution to this issue, so we have to just remember to always seek divine guidance when trying to interpret the scriptures (and do nearly anything else too).

So, that was a long digression. But my point is simply that the author's intent is a critical element of interpreting texts, and in this case we know that the authors would have almost definitely opposed homosexuality on general terms. As such, it seems evident that the passage in Jude is describing the classical viewpoint, which almost every Jew would have believed, that the homosexuality in Sodom was a sin against the Lord and that their "going after strange flesh" was one of the sins resulting in their destruction.

The second theory is the Sodomites were grossly deficient in hospitality. Indeed, they seemed to assault travelers as a regular custom, since we are not given any description of provocation or what might have initiated this attack against the two angels. Therefore one could reasonably surmise that they did this regularly. In the ancient Middle Eastern (ME) culture, hospitality for strangers was considered very important. There's little doubt in my mind this was one of the sins of Sodom.

The third theory is not something mentioned here, but is brought up far later in the bible, in Ezekiel 16:48-50:
As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “Sodom, your sister and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before Me. Therefore I removed them when I saw it.
We again see a picture of abundant wealth, but with it comes "arrogance... she did not help the poor and needy". Lastly, they were "haughty (i.e. prideful) and committed abominations before Me." So according to this theory, the main sins of Sodom were social, not helping those in need. While many propose this theory as an alternative to the other issues (homosexuality and inhospitality), I see it as more complimentary.

I've also seen a few arguments on the basis of omission; that is, this chapter does not specifically condemn Sodom on the basis of homosexuality, therefore homosexuality is not part of the sin of Sodom. My response is simply to refer to my prior rant about biblical omissions: generally speaking, the bible does not always explicitly condemn things that the author would have clearly viewed as sin. This does not mean it is sin, but it means the argument from omission is not generally applicable to the OT.

So, enough about that section. The next part that is very unusual is Lot's offer of his two daughters. This is ostensibly an act of great charitable hospitality. It shows a tremendous regard for these strangers, that he would be willing to sacrifice his own children to protect them. But (and here is my opinion) it was a horrible mistake on Lot's part. Again, some argue on the basis of omission that the bible actually condones this action, and similarly some people argue that it would have been *considered* righteous by the author to offer his daughters in exchange for the honored guests. So omission + "rule of hospitality" = a so-called righteous person sacrificing his daughters. And thus the skeptic assails the validity of biblical morality, that it could (ostensibly) condone and honor such a vile decision.

I've already addressed the issue of moralistic omission, so in my opinion the bible does not explicitly or implicitly evaluate the morality of this decision. I can't imagine what sort of opinion the author or Israelite people would have had upon reading this, but my opinion is (as I have already stated) that it was a horrible mistake. I have more words in my heart than I can share through this medium, so I will be brief.

Protecting honored guests is a good and noble thing to do, but to disregard his own children in this manner is vile and reprehensible. I don't pretend to understand Lot's mentality or what inspired him to this decision, but I can only say that I would rather die in the defense of my children than allow them to suffer the brutality of a wicked mob such as this, such as Lot would be familiar with since he had lived there for some time.

Lot, who had chosen the well-watered, fertile and wealthy plains of Jordan, is now beginning to discover that choosing wealth and casting his lot (sorry) in with a wicked people is not going to turn out well. While he may have not known the reputation of Sodom and Gomorrah before moving there (although it's certainly possible he did), he certainly should have learned their character upon living in the region for some unspecified time period.

I have two or three things to say about this. The first point is to remember that Lot was living in the old Covenental period (even if he was not personally under the Mosaic Covenant). In this period, one of the chief emphatic points is upon moral, cultural and physical separation from the idolatrous peoples who lived in the ME, among whom Sodom and Gomorrah are pre-eminent. So life for the people documented in the OT is not the same as life in the modern, post-resurrection period. This is a very important point that is deeply connected with covenantal theology, and it helps to explain a lot of the issues that people have related to the OT and its application to modern life. In particular, it is very common to hear arguments regarding the validity of the OT as the inspired word of God by pointing out certain passages regarding Israel's mandate to destroy idolatrous nations, laws regarding slavery and so on. All of these arguments hinge on stripping away the entire context of the OT, the times they lived in *and the covenant they lived under* and simply judging those actions or laws on the basis of modern times and morality. This is not a proper interpretation of the OT, and it is relevant in this situation as well because Lot is most likely under an implied mandate to separate himself from the idolatrous nations in the ME. Now we see Abraham also make alliances with the local peoples (such as Mamre the Amorite) and I think this analysis equally applies to him. As such, his alliance with Mamre is probably also a mistake, but it's a mistake with a far reduced scope and impact compared to Lot.

Secondly, the paradigm of separation is largely reversed in the NT. Not only are Christians not supposed to separate themselves from others, they are supposed to be the "salt and light of the world", so to speak. This refers to being intermingled with people who do not follow God, and allowing your relationships with them to result in their preservation and transformation. But this is not contradictory to my third and last point, which is that Christians are still under the mandate of moral separation, that we are not supposed to emulate the patterns of the world but to be transformed by redemption and adopt the ways of God (Romans 12:2).

Out of all these things, the only one that Lot somewhat demonstrates is the third, maintaining moral integrity in spite of living in a corrupt culture. We see this in his good treatment of the unknown visitors. But we also see (in my opinion) signs of moral corruption in offering up his daughters, we never see any signs of him transforming the lives of the people around him (which is arguably a NT paradigm and not to be expected in the OT) and we don't see the proper separation expected in the OT period. That, in conclusion, is why I think Lot moving to Sodom and Gomorrah was a mistake. If he had acted in greater measure as the prophets of later times, like Noah or Amos who worked hard to bring change to idolotrous foreign peoples, then perhaps he could even have averted the disaster on himself by restraining God's wrath. And that seems to be how it goes: the people whose lives you are bonded to share your fate, just as you share theirs. Their disaster can bring you down, as we see with Lot, and their good fortune can bring you up as well. If you are bonded with wicked people to whom judgment comes, that is not in itself bad, so long as your influence can bring about positive changes in their lives to avert the judgment. But if you do not do so when you have the chance, then you have also sealed your own fate along with theirs.

We see his disaster compounded when his sons-in-law (who we can only presume to be Sodomites) don't believe his warning, and therefore die. Unlike Abraham, Lot was going to intermarry with the idolaters which is also strongly forbidden by the Mosaic Covenant.

Lot hesitates. This is a point many write about, but it should not be surprising given everything we have seen up to this point. Lot had already demonstrated his desire for wealth by moving to Sodom/Gomorrah, and he simply continues to have that desire now that it is going to be swept away. And make no mistake, Lot loses almost all of his material wealth in this judgment. In order to flee, they had to leave nearly everything behind, including their home and the majority of their livestock. The angels physically pull them into escaping because "the compassion of the LORD was upon him", which is very striking. Lot does not escape because of great wisdom or strength, but because of the compassion of the Lord.

In the end, they escape to Zoar which survives because of their presence. This again shows the blessings of the righteous spilling over into the lives of those around them.

Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt. There can be no hesitation or ambivalence between the life of wealth one is giving up if you are seeking to follow the Lord. He requires undivided devotion.

When Abraham looks down and sees the destruction, he doesn't know if Lot is still alive, so that must have been a challenging and dynamic time for him, as well as the gravity of seeing such vast destruction. But nevertheless God remembered his conversation with Abraham, and did not punish the righteous with the wicked.

Next, Lot and his surviving family depart from Zoar, possibly from a fear of the inhabitants and possibly from a fear that the small city would also be destroyed by God.

Lastly, both of his daughters have sex with him to preserve their family line. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were possibly thinking that there was nobody else alive in the world. Or they were thinking that they would simply stay in the mountains for the rest of their lives and never meet another person.

Some commentators say that the reason they had sex with him is that when Lot offered to give them up to the mob, he basically eschewed protecting them and this both leaves them unable to trust him anymore and also leaves them open to demonic attacks. Either way, both of the children named here are the ancestors of peoples who constantly war with Israel in later times, so the outcome of this incest is clearly negative to Israelites.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 18

In this chapter, the Lord and two angels visit Abraham, the birth of Isaac is promised (again), and Abraham negotiates protection for the righteous from God's wrath.

This chapter continues with the events of chapter 17. I think most conservative scholars consider them descriptions of two separate events (i.e. that the Lord visited Abraham before, talked with him, and then this is a second event that happens later), but the more I read it the more I can see a compatibility between the two, that they could possibly describe the same event because there aren't really any conflicting details.

Anyway, it doesn't make a big difference because the content is essentially the same either way.

So first what we see is the hospitality of Abraham. He rushes to serve the men who draw near to his tent. I think it's arguable to say that Abraham recognized the Lord, and that's why he was so eager to serve these visitors, but a lot of commentators tend to think that Abraham did not recognize them and that this was his normal custom for guests. This is somewhat affirmed later in the bible, in Hebrews 13:2 which says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it." While this verse does not mention Abraham, one could argue that it is implicitly referencing the events in Gen 18, and as such would imply that Abraham did not recognize his guests.

This line of reasoning continues with the implication that perhaps the Lord would not have visited Abraham and shared these blessings with him if he had not been openly hospitable, since it more or less says that he approached them and asked them to stay and eat his food. I think this is plausible, but amounts mostly to speculation because we don't actually know what God would have done if Abraham had acted differently.

The heat of the day is naturally the time when rest, shade and water are most appreciated, so this certainly shows Abraham being very courteous.

In verse 9, when they ask about his wife, we start to see these visitors acting in clearly supernatural knowledge as they ask about his wife by name and then restate the promise that we saw in chapter 17, including the specific timeframe of one year. This time, however, Sarah is present and listening (though concealed, so she is overhearing the conversation). Just as Abraham laughed in the last chapter, Sarah laughs in this one, and Sarah and the Lord get into a cute little argument about whether or not she laughed. So her initial response is skepticism. We will see this skepticism vanish when she becomes pregnant.

What is made clear (and what is intended to be made clear) from Abraham and Sarah's responses is that this pregnancy is supernatural. They are both clearly beyond the age of human fertility, and yet they will now have a child by the word of the Lord. This isn't just about chance, this is about God's grace bringing restoration into their lives.

The story transitions then, back to Sodom and Lot. Apparently what we've all been expecting is now about to happen, as the Lord says the time for Sodom's judgment has come.

First thing I see in this is the importance of God letting Abraham into his counsel. There are a couple aspects/implications of this. For one, the basis of Abraham's admission as the text states is his greatness through God's choice, that he is chosen so that God may bless him and his children as they walk in God's ways. But the entire foundation of this blessing is in verse 19, that "his children and his household after him ... keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice". Another aspect is that of Abraham as the friend of God. Abraham has a very close relationship with God throughout the scriptures, and this is both the basis of God's promise to Abraham as well as God's confidence in him. Lastly, there is the aspect of Abraham as one of the first prophets. Later on Abraham will be called a prophet explicitly, but here we see the pattern for how prophets operate: they walk in closeness with God and from that walk of righteousness (see Gen 15:6) they receive revelation about the plans of God. This is the pattern; prophecy is not magic, it's not divination and it's not telepathy or ESP or whatever. It's walking with God and having God tell you stuff. And that leads me to my next point, what Abraham does with this information.

Abraham's first priority in hearing about the destruction coming to Sodom is to intercede for his nephew. Well, he says "the righteous", but we know that his nephew Lot went to Sodom, so there is that implication here. This is also a very important part of the prophet pattern: intercession. This is something we will see a lot more with later prophets, not as much with Abraham, but it's very important. The biblical pattern for prophecy is really important because modern culture has a very twisted view of what prophecy is, largely because of the actions of a small group of prominent figures who have labeled themselves prophets throughout the past few hundred years of history. Lots of people think of prophecy as some mixture of biblical numerology, end-times eschatology and predicting the future on some obscure or arcane basis. The vast majority of this public perception is completely unfounded from a biblical point of view, but the common vocabulary of calling such people "prophets" results in an unfortunate conflation of the two distinct realms of operation.

I will try to address biblical prophecy more fully at a later date. For now, what I will say is that the core elements are two-fold: closeness in one's relationship with God and intercession on behalf of others, both wicked and righteous, as directed by the prophetic revelation that one receives.

I have already shown some of the behavior patterns from Abraham that reveal his closeness with God and his righteousness, things like his propensity for building altars, his eagerness to serve the strangers, his risktaking to save his nephew from the coalition of four kings, and his willingness to sacrifice everything familiar by leaving Haran and traveling to this unknown land, on the basis of God's promise.

Now in this story we see the second element, which is that after Abraham receives a prophetic revelation (the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), his first reaction is to demand justice and protection for the righteous. This is different from what we see in many subsequent prophets, where a lot of the emphasis is on mercy for the wicked. The truth is that there is no contradiction between these two appeals and both of them reveal the character of God. Many prophets also demand justice, such as can be easily found in King David's Psalms.

In this case, Abraham's prayer establishes a critical principle in the character of God: that God is not willing to treat the wicked and the righteous alike, that the judge of all the earth will deal justly. This is incredibly important not just because it defines one of God's characteristics, but also because it is so frequently challenged by nonbelievers.

And lastly, God accepts Abraham's appeal: that is, God is (as it appears) willing to change his behavior due to human requests for relief. To a first-time bible reader, this is not necessarily obvious. Why would the omnipotent, world-creating God be willing to listen to a human? To be honest I'm not sure how to answer that, other than to say, well, he does. This is, in some ways, the most meaningful conclusion (and measure) of Abraham's relationship with God. That just like relationships between people, if you ask a stranger to do something he probably won't, but if you ask a friend, he probably will. This willingness to listen on God's part shows that his relationship with Abraham is not (intended to be) strictly a power relationship with God as King and Abraham as the lowly servant. There is an intended parity here, where Abraham can talk to God and God can talk to Abraham and they both listen to each other.

And so we are left with two angels going to investigate Sodom, God's promise of protecting the righteous, and Abraham returning to his home with a renewed promise for his wife to bear a son.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bible Commentary - Genesis 17

13 years have passed since Ishmael's birth, and the LORD "appears" to Abram. Remember, appearances are powerful. If God ever appeared to you, you would agree with me. God speaks to Abram again, reaffirming the covenant, and at last changes his name to Abraham.

Names are important in the bible. Remember how Adam named the animals? I explained that it was an act of dominion or power. It is similar here; God is expressing his lordship over Abraham. It's interesting because his new name (Father of a multitude) has a very similar meaning to his old name (exalted father). Both of the names emphasize his descendants, which must have been particularly grating through his many years of childlessness, but also emphasizing the contrast of God's promise and his inevitable children.

So God renames Abraham. This serves to reaffirm God's promise, having many descendants, it serves to affirm God's sovereignty in his life, and it also establishes Abraham in a new season in his life, forming a discontinuity with the old life (and the old name). Abraham enters the covenant of circumcision and God promises the birth of a son through his wife Sarai.

On that note, God renames Sarai as well, to Sarah. This has the same meaning and impact as Abraham's new name. Both Sarai and Sarah mean "princess", so rather than establishing a new direction for her life, it reaffirms God's existing promises and sovereignty in her life. However, God does specify now that Abraham's promised son will be born from Sarah. This has important results. First, it is a strong validation of Sarah. Not only is the promise a son for Abraham, it's also a promised son for Sarah, and given everything I said about the importance of women bearing children in this culture, that must mean a lot to her. God is only speaking to Abraham here though, so we will see her reaction later.

Second, in spite of God saying he will bless Ishmael, it raises some important questions about Ishmael's status. Since Isaac is the child of the covenant, what does that make Ishmael? One can easily imagine that Abraham and Sarah spent the last 13 years thinking that Ishmael was the promised son. Certainly their incredulity at God's renewed promises implies they were not expecting another child to come. And in spite of how Abraham values Sarah over Hagar, it just had to be difficult on Sarah to know (or think she knew) that she would never have a child. But now that we know there will be another son, that Ishmael is not the promised son, one can only imagine that this relegates Ishmael to a sort of second class in Abraham's family. We will see the outcome of this later.

Third, it casts further doubts on Abraham's decision to sleep with Hagar. Of course, as I pointed out this is the first (recorded) time God says the promised son will be born through Sarah, so one could defend Abraham's ignorance here, but regardless of his knowledge or motives at the time, it is now pretty clear in my opinion that trying to have a son through Hagar was a mistake. And I think Abraham is probably beginning to think similarly. Yet even without the covenant and the promise, Ishmael is still guaranteed blessings and to be a great nation. So the blessing of Abraham overflows to his children, even those who are not the promised of God.