Thursday, July 31, 2008

Genesis 18:20-21 "God Will Go Down"

Genesis 18:20-21: And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”

Since God decided in the previous verses that He would let Abraham in on His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah, He now shares what is about to happen. First, He indicates that He has heard an “outcry” from the two cities. The Hebrew word used here is ‘za’aq’ and it normally refers to a cry for aid. Whether this actually came from the more God-conscious citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah or whether it came from the heart of God Himself is not known at this point in the text although later evidence points to the fact that it was more likely the latter. In fact, this crying that God reacts to may be something similar to what was referenced in Genesis 4:10 when God, after Cain killed Abel said to him “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Yet another interpretation may be that since verse 21 refers to “its outcry”, there is an implication that the outcry originated from the inanimate cities themselves, and perhaps not the people in the cities. In any case, God had to do something.

As we watch the world today we cannot help but wonder how much more God’s eyes and heart can withstand as truly our own generation’s “sin is exceedingly grave” as was that of Sodom and Gomorrah. God will act in due time. In the case before us here, God indicated that He personally would go down to the cities to see if indeed the facts match His sensed outcry. And He added that He would not be fooled. He would know whether or not it does. Man does not ultimately get away with sin.

His “going down” may refer to God simply moving along from Abraham’s place to Sodom and Gomorrah, since these words seem to have been uttered as God was leaving Abraham’s tent. On the other hand, the Hebrew words seem to indicate a translation that includes some descending from above or on high. Either way, God finds His way to where inequities abound and He deals with them.

But before we leave these verses there is one slight glimmer of hope. God still wants to check out if indeed there is any chance that it is not as bad as He has heard or felt. Perhaps there are some there that have not partaken in the great sin of the two cities. God always looks for those wherever trouble or unrighteousness abounds.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Genesis 18:16-19 On Gaining God's Confidence

Genesis 18:16-19: Then the men rose up from there, and looked down toward Sodom; and Abraham was walking with them to send them off. And the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him.”

God had the final word and then He and the men with him left Abraham’s home. When God speaks, He does not sit around to argue with you or me. It is up to us to decide what to do with what He has said. Sarah was left with God’s final word on her actions.

Abraham’s visitors looked down toward Sodom and moved in that direction. Again, like a model host, Abraham walked with them part way to see them off. Abraham was exhibiting the honor his guests deserve. And it is because of this honor and love that he extended to them, that clearly God paused long enough to consider whether or not He should share with Abraham what was about to happen with respect to Sodom. God takes those that love Him dearly into His confidence on certain matters. That is why sometimes we hear devoted people say, “I have a peace in my heart about what God is going to do here.” In Abraham’s case, the Lord speaks again, but it is not clear whether he spoke to Himself or to those that were with Him, or openly so that Abraham could hear Him. Nevertheless, because of who Abraham is and what he will be, God decides to let him in on the future of a land that is dear to Abraham, if only for the fact that his nephew Lot and his family had settled there.

Part of God’s reasoning in sharing the future with Abraham was the phrase, “For I have chosen him.” When God chooses us, He has great plans for us and He works with us on those plans if we let Him. He was doing that earlier with Abraham with respect to an heir and here in this passage, He is about to do it with respect to Sodom’s future. But tucked away in these verses is part of the on-going relationship requirement between God and His chosen ones. The text says God chose Abraham “in order that” he “commands” his children and household (which included Abraham’s business in those days) to keep God’s way by doing what is righteous and just. But it does not stop there, it continues to say, that all this is required “in order that” God brings to Abraham the blessings or covenant He has made with him.

This passage certainly gives rise to questions. What does the word ‘command’ mean here? What if Abraham does his part, but the children do not? What about God’s promise to Abraham? Why won’t God help Abraham if the children or household do not live righteously and justly? And so on.

Today we may use the word command in two ways, both to order others to do something (as in “I command you to leave”) or to take charge and be responsible for the operation of something (as in “he was in command of the ship”). The Hebrew word used in our current text is tsavah and translators seem to favor the first of our two modern uses of the word. I know I will be in contentious waters here, but I believe God wants us as parents and heads of households and businesses to command those under our authority to follow God’s way but only as long as they want to remain in our authority. We cannot allow our children living at home to do things that are unrighteous or unjust. They cannot break the laws of God or the laws of the land. Employees in our employ and our entire business must be run in a righteous, fair, and ethical manner. But at the same time, we must also note that doing righteous things and acting justly does not constitute a total relationship with God. God wants us to love Him and desire Him as a God and Father.

Based on those two ideas then, a parent or a business owner can only expect that in his household and business, those under his authority will act righteously and justly. He cannot control their hearts or minds. Once they leave his authority, as children get older and get married, as employees leave the business, etc., the father or owner is no longer responsible for them. Clearly, should they continue to live righteously and justly, it will stand the head of the household well, but I believe it is not a requirement for him to receive his promised blessing from God.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

Genesis 18:13-15 God Knows When You Scorn

Genesis 18:13-15: And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” Sarah denied it however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

These three verses are packed with lessons. First, we notice that the “Lord” asks Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh?” This very question explains the significance of Sarah’s laughing “to herself” as we read in verse 12. If she had laughed out loud, the question would not be as surprising. But only the “Lord” could have been able to hear an internal laugh and also the thinking behind the laugh, so as He could say Sarah was “saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’” Clearly, there’s no escaping the fact that God knows our every thought and feeling.

Secondly, further to our thoughts on the earlier verses, this verse definitely says, “And the Lord said…” Now again, there are two possibilities here. The most likely one is that the Lord God was indeed one of the visitors. The less likely is that He joined the discussion at that point and spoke to Abraham as He done before. I find this is what happens in our own lives. God uses others to direct and guide us, even to test us and grow us. But He is always present. Yet there are times, when He Himself directly enters the process and speaks to us, perhaps not like He spoke to Abraham that day, but certainly clearly enough so that if we were listening for His voice, we would hear it.

And what did God say when He spoke. “Abraham (and maybe Sarah), what’s too difficult for me?” Well, of course, God knows the answering is “Nothing.” But He wants to know what we think. He wants us to believe the answer. The Bible is silent on any direct answer that Abraham or Sarah gave God on His direct question. Was the answer too obvious? Were they too ashamed to state it? Did they not believe the answer? How much more insight would we have into the character of both Abraham and Sarah if we were provided a direct answer to that question. Yet, sometimes, in similar circumstances we behave the same way. We stay silent and do not give God the answer He wants to hear.

Instead of getting upset with our behavior and silence, God reaffirms. In this passage He indicates to Abraham (and to Sarah listening at the side of the tent) that He will return in exactly one year’s time and then, or by then, Sarah will have a son. That’s the loving God that we have.

Now you would think Sarah would have learned her lesson, got the message God was trying to give both of them, and have a change in heart that would result in praising God. Instead, she takes on behavior similar to Eve’s in the garden and denies what God told her she had done. “I did not laugh.” Wow. That takes a lot of guts. How do you deny something God has said you have done? Of course He knows. He would not be saying you did it, if you had not. And why would anyone deny something like that? Well, the Bible tells us she did because she was afraid.

Fear is an emotion that God built into our nature as human beings. In fact, I would venture to say that all of God’s creatures to my knowledge have the emotion of fear. It was intended as a means of helping us survive. Yet, it sometimes causes us to take inappropriate actions and make poor decisions, as it did here in Sarah’s case. It is interesting to note that God (capital He in our text) does not accept it as an excuse and He says, “No, but you did.”

Having lived over six decades at this point, I have come across at least three people that I can clearly say, “there’s no point in arguing” with them. I just cannot win and trying to is not worth it. Once in a while very early in any discussion, I may get a point across to each of them and there may be a momentary concession on their part. It’s very frustrating. I’ve also learned that when it comes to my own life, there is absolutely no purpose in arguing with God. But in the case of God, I would not have it any other way.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Genesis 18:11-12 Why Sarah Laughed

Genesis 18:11-12: Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”

In the previous chapter, we learned that Abraham was ninety-nine years old. We may assume that his bride was younger, but not necessarily decades younger than himself, although at this point, we do not know. We also do not know the length of time between chapter 17 and this chapter. The Bible simply states that both Abraham and Sarah were “old, advanced in age” at this point in time. To be perfectly frank, Sarah was no longer menstruating and thus, under normal natural circumstances, she was not capable of having any children. In chapter 16 when she suggested that Abraham sleep with Hagar, Sarah knew God was somehow not blessing her with a child, although it may have been possible for her to become pregnant. But here we get the added knowledge that, for all intent and purposes, it would take a miracle for Sarah to conceive. Now imagine yourself in that situation. The one illustration that comes to mind is this: Imagine Prince Phillip (now eighty-seven years old) and Queen Elizabeth of England (now almost 75) had no children to succeed the Queen on the throne. And along come a few dignitaries from somewhere, get entertained at the palace, and after dinner, as it is the custom for men to hang around and enjoy a drink and swap stories while the women retire to the parlor to do likewise, the Queen in passing by the dining room overhears one of the guests informing Phillip that she will have a child this time next year.

Can you imagine the reaction? Having been in some old palaces in England, I can assure you that you would have been able to hear the Queen’s hysterical laughter throughout the royal abode. If you don’t believe the reaction would be thus try telling an elderly matron at a party that she will be pregnant next year and see what happens.

What I find interesting is that Sarah could have laughed out loud herself. But she did not. The scriptures say she “laughed to herself”. We do not know why, except that she did. She was still thinking straight, however, as she was able to logically talk herself out of any possible belief in the suggestion. She asked herself a logical question, but one to which she already thought she had the answer. “Is there any chance that Abraham who is old could possibly, physically, give me the natural pleasure of intercourse, at my age?” “No way!” she thought, “That would take a miracle.”

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Genesis 18:9-10 Who Visited Abraham?

Genesis 18:9-10: Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold, in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him.


Consider the situation. Visitors are at your place enjoying some well-prepared food. You’re standing by ready to serve them should they need anything. As they’re eating, it occurs to them that there may be something wrong with this picture. “Where in the world is your wife?” may be a very reasonable question. What may be less reasonable to expect is that these guests, believed to be perfect strangers to this point, know Abraham’s wife by name and call her thus. It is possible that these were not mere ordinary strangers. Now here is where the text gets a little complicated, at least for the layman.

To begin with Scripture indicates that the enquirers of that question were plural in number for it says, “they said to him (or asked him).” At face value of the text, we would think that all the visitors asked the question. Alternatively, it is possible that a spokesman was identified and that he asked on every guest’s part, thus “they asked”. The singular Abraham replies with the truth, “Why, she’s in the tent.” It is possible that Abraham’s tone was one of surprise in that most guests should know that the women of those days were in fact always waiting, on the sidelines, in the tent. And it is possible, given who these strangers might be, and where they are from even if just ordinary people, that they knew that as well, and that their question was only facilitative in nature, enabling them to get to the point of the news they wanted to share.

And here’s the tricky part, the text next says “And he (singular) said, ‘I will surely return to you….’” Is this the spokesman on behalf of everybody? Or is it someone else speaking on his own initiative? Clearly, the response is “I will surely return….” The question for us then is who exactly the “he” in this phrase refers to. Who can be so certain that he will surely return at the same time next year and that Sarah will have a son? Some would argue only God could say that. They are backed by the fact that it is God who has been having the discussion with Abraham about the promise prior to this visit, so this may very well be Him again.

To make matters more complex, in my New American Standard Bible (NASB) that I consider quite strong in direct word translation, the word “he” here is not capitalized. NASB capitalizes the pronoun He in both the Old and New Testaments when it refers to God. Yet, here it is not capitalized. Further the singular visitor replies that “he will return at the same time next year and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” As a layman, there is no clue in the Hebrew translation that can help us either. In fact, most commentators simply assume that one of the visitors was God and stay clear of the issue of number in the text. Clearly, the text does not tell us that for sure.

On the other hand, however, the news shared by this stranger is very much in keeping with what we believe only God knew at that point. The story continues to unfold with the text’s next revelation; simply that Sarah heard all this as she was listening at the tent door (and one assumes out of sight behind the tent canvas). Now imagine a very old woman who had been barren all her life hearing from some perfect stranger that she would have a son in a year’s time. As far as scripture shows us up to this point, we have no proof that Abraham had in fact shared God’s earlier promise to him with her. In Chapter 16, verse 1, all we have is that she clearly talks about her thinking God would not give her children. How she reacts to hearing this incredible, or rather, unbelievable news in the verses that follow, support the notion that she was hearing it for the first time. On the other hand, there would be many who would argue that there is no way even a man like Abraham could keep such a secret from his wife. And while we have no knowledge of God saying not to tell anyone, we also have no proof that Abraham had told Sarah.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Genesis 18:6-8 -- "Hospitality cont."

Genesis 18:6-8: So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.” Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate.

We have no record of Abraham’s actual inner thoughts, reaction or feelings in response to the agreement of his guests to stay a while and take him up on his offer. We do know that sometimes people offer things just to be polite and secretly hope that the offer is not accepted. Coming from a European background, expected to be hospitable by society, I have often extended an invitation at the spur of the moment relying heavily on the great probability that the offer would not be accepted. I am usually right. My wife on the other hand will not play those games. She argues if you really do not want people to accept, do not offer. I suppose some people, like Chrysogon, are free of ‘desired appearances’ and some of us are still bound by them. As I get older, I do feel freer to follow my wife’s approach. I think, however, that God would have us be both hospitable and sincere. Nevertheless, in Abraham’s case, all we know is that he acted right away to please his guests and deliver the goods he promised in his offer. So, like a good, or perhaps, wise husband, Abraham hurried into the tent and engaged Sarah in helping him.
She would take care of the baking. Abraham himself selected the young calf that was to become the steaks for their guests. He gave up the opportunity to be recorded as the world’s first ‘backyard griller’ however when he asked his servant to prepare the meat. Once cooked, all the food was presented to the guests by the host himself and with great respect to them, he stood as they ate.

At one of SCA International’s (the Mission I have the privilege of serving), I remember my wife and I being hosted for dinner by two of our missionary families that originated from Fiji. The ladies, after working very hard to prepare an incredible meal, proceeded to stand by the table serving us, their families, and at least one other couple. It was not until we had finished eating, that they decided to have something themselves in the kitchen. I tried unsuccessfully to object. I was simply informed this was their custom and it had to be that way. At his advanced age, Abraham simply stood by as his guests ate.

Perhaps one lesson for us from these verses is to learn the importance of hospitality and serving others, including perfect strangers, and hopefully with true sincerity. If God brings them to us, He wants us to engage with them and to offer whatever we can in accordance with His blessing of us.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Genesis 18:4-5 -- Giving & Receiving Hospitality

Genesis 18:4-5: “Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said.”

There are several indications here that this is a very “physical” visit and that the visitors are plural in number. The Hebrew words referring to the visitors are translated as “yourselves” twice and as “they” once in the two-verse passage. Water for washing their feet was to be brought either by Abraham himself or his servants. No further reference is provided later in the chapter as to what actually happened. However, the direct translation implies that he himself was going to get some of the victuals for the visitors and later verses support this as being what actually happened although the servants were also involved, under his direction. What is interesting is that the visitors agreed.

Here we have not only the gift of hospitality so wonderfully displayed by Abraham, but also the complementary gift of gracious acceptance displayed by his visitors. God would have us at times be hospitable and at other times be accepting of hospitality. Some of us find it easier to be hospitable but struggle with accepting the hospitality of others, especially if it is not what we are used to. Others find it to easy to receive the hospitality of others, but very reluctant to offer it. I believe God wants us to exercise both well, according to what material means He has granted us. We are not to use our lack of means as an excuse for not extending hospitability, as He will provide; and we are not to use our over-abundance as a sub-conscious reason for avoiding the hospitality of those who have much less yet offer what they have with such humility. In short, it may be best that all of us, regardless of our standing in life, should be mindful of the fact that every good thing comes from God – the abundance He gives us is His, so is the scarcity!

One more thing to note: While Abraham acknowledges his guests and invites them to join him Sarah remains in the tent, silent. We have no knowledge as to how big Abraham’s tent really was and whether or not there were compartments in it, which is very possible. His invitation to the guests was made unilaterally even though his wife might have a significant role to play in fulfilling what Abraham offered. I grew up in a household where that was the norm. Mother was always ready to supply what father had offered. I married into a household where my wife was willing to do so, but would much rather have preferred advance warning or knowledge that I was going to offer something requiring her presence and involvement. Even as I write this, I am aware of those that will examine every single word to see where I may fall on this issue. I think a lot depends on the culture and the society in which one lives. I also believe that a husband and wife, living for God, should be in tune with and sensitive to each other that one does not make such unannounced expectations unnecessarily and that in the event they are made for good reasons, the other spouse will rise to the occasion. Hospitality is often ministry and husbands and wives should do much of their ministry together, having worked out necessary signals, arrangements, or understandings in advance, not only for the sake of their ministry, but also for the purpose of being blessed.

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Finally, if you like what you read here, you may want to donate to my favourite charity, SCA International, by clicking on the logo below. Ken.