Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 18, 2017
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this Reading,
but there is available a
Context of the Abraham Stories
Even though this passage is part of the Lectionary's semi-continuous reading through Genesis, there is a huge jump both theologically and in terms of the story line in Genesis between the reading from last week in Genesis 12 and this reading in Genesis 18 and 21. This 25-year period in the life of Abraham between the promise of Genesis 12 and any evidence of its validity beyond God's word is crucial not only to the theology of Genesis but to the entire future-looking dimension of the rest of Scripture. To skip from the promise made to Abraham and then go directly to the birth of the child of promise without tracking the 25-year struggle of Abraham in trying to live out the promise raises serious problems for how we see and understand the biblical text theologically. At best it raises the problem of a false triumphialism that is unconnected with the struggles of life, and at worst it rewrites the biblical story into something that it is not. (We should note here that some of the intervening narrative is covered in other parts of the Lectionary cycle, for example, parts of chapter 15 in Year C and parts of chapter 17 in Year B. However, that does not alleviate the problem raised here.)
Of course, a careful exegete and preacher may be able to work around this deficiency in the Lectionary by taking care in how the sequence of material is presented and what conclusions are drawn from it. But there is an important caution to be noted here that we do not allow external categories or the pressures of keeping up with a scheduled reading to override the message of the biblical text itself. Especially in preaching, great care must be taken not to skip so much of the biblical material or present it in such a way that people end up hearing only an edited version of Scripture that fits within certain expectations. The danger is there even in the most well selected readings. Such an approach, especially in cases such as this, is too easily skewed into personal agendas from either side of the pulpit. It will take great care here to allow the biblical message itself to be heard rather than picking out only one aspect of the biblical text in order to address other topics that lie beyond the range of the text itself.
More so than many other passages of Scripture, this reading must be placed within its literary context in Genesis. The tensions that emerge from the unfolding journey of Abraham as he received the promise of God, struggled to live under and toward that promise, and then as he finally embraced the God of the promise are the heart of the larger narrative of which this reading is a part. The story line must be taken seriously to this point in the story. Abraham had not been very successful in responding to the promise. He had failed more often than he had succeeded, and had mostly brought curse into the world instead of the promised blessing (for example, 12:10-20).
In fact, only four times in the entire Abraham narrative from Genesis 12 to 22 is Abraham portrayed in positive terms: when he initially responded to the call of God to go (12:4), as he still struggled to believe in spite of doubts and circumstances (15:6), as he first lived out the mission aspect of his calling (18:16-32), and as he finally moved to complete trust in God (22:12). The narrative tracks the ups and downs of Abraham, and it is only within that tension filled dynamic of the narrative, and especially against the background of Abraham's mixture of faith and failure, that this reading can be adequately understood (see Abraham's Faith Journey).
Against the background of Abraham's journey tracked to this point in the story, a journey both physical and spiritual, this chapter begins moving to the conclusion and climax of the narrative. This part of the reading easily divides into two sections. The first section (vv. 1-8) focuses entirely on Abraham and the three visitors, while the second section (vv. 9-15) shifts attention to Sarah and her participation in the unfolding promise. That shift will an important dimension of this text that we will observe later.
The first eight verses of this chapter seem rather mundane. They simply tell us of the visit of three men to Abraham and his rather elaborate provisions for their visit. In some sense this rather prosaic beginning is only stage setting for the more significant part of the narrative focusing on Sarah. However there are three dimensions of these verses that deserve some attention in the larger story.
First, it is difficult not to notice the shift that the story later makes between the three visitors who speak and the Lord who speaks (v. 13). Some have suggested that this is an Old Testament indication of the Trinity or that these are really angels, one of whom is God himself (deduced from the mention of two "angels" in 19:1; cf. Heb. 13:2). Or from another perspective some have suggested that here occurs one of those rough "seams" that indicate an imperfectly edited conflation of earlier sources. But these solutions provide answers to a problem with which the text is not concerned and that stray much too far from the text itself in trying to solve it.
It seems more likely that the text intends to present the ambiguity of the three visitors and God as a further way to illustrate Abraham's) own struggle to come to terms with the impossibility of what God has promised. They simply do not initially recognize God's presence in the three men. While the message they hear is unambiguous and they would later identify that it was God who had been speaking, they still must deal with the fact that this encounter with the promise and the God of the promise came amid the mundane events of life. Part of Abraham's struggle, that here became Sarah's struggle as well, was the difficulty of living under promise amid all the ordinariness of life. It might have been easier to believe if God had appeared here in a burning bush or amid the shaking of an earthquake. But God spoke in the ordinary course of the visit of three strangers, and it is up to the couple to recognize God in that context.
Also, there may be some sense that God works in and through the ordinary events and ordinary people of our lives. As God works in such ways the people through whom he works become his "messengers" as God becomes present in their actions. Here, the concept is not "angels" as supernatural creatures that perform miracles, as we are accustomed to thinking. Rather, the Hebrew background of the concept is more accurately "messengers," as the basic meaning of the Hebrew term malak attests in spite of its frequent translation as "angels." "Messengers" are those who carry out the bidding of one in power. Even though the term is not used here (there is a reference to two malakim in 19:1), the conceptual background may well be that as God works through the three men, they serve as his messengers. And as they do, God is present so that Abraham again hears the Lord speaking the promise through the three men.
A second dimension of these verses is the cultural background of the customs of hospitality portrayed in such detail here (see Travelers and Strangers: "Hospitality" in the Ancient Middle East). While there is certainly a significant dimension of culturally conditioned customs involved, we may fairly ask why this much detail is given at this particular point in the story.
Abraham is portrayed as lavishly fulfilling these social obligations, going beyond what might be expected of him in simply providing food and water for travelers. This sense of social obligation, and Abraham's willingness to fulfill it, may well be an echo of Abraham√'s call to be a blessing to the world. He had struggled to fulfill that part of his promise and had failed, bringing curse on others instead. And yet, just a few verses further in the narrative (18:23-33), he would be willing to intercede for the wicked city of Sodom. This may be some indication, especially in the very context in which the promise is drawing close, that Abraham was finally beginning to sense what his calling to be a blessing to the world entailed. This then would be a small-scale enactment of that growing realization in Abraham's journey of his relation and responsibility to others in a larger world.
A third dimension of these verses worth noting is the deferential posture of Abraham toward the three men. Of course, this may be nothing more than a portrayal of typical Eastern deference to others. But in the context of the shift to a focus on Sarah in the following verses, this exceeding deference more likely serves to portray Abraham as a more passive participant in the now quickly unfolding drama. After all, since chapter eleven, it was Sarah who had been barren (given the patriarchal ways of thinking and lacking modern understanding of biology, if there were no birth it must be the fault of the woman; there was no awareness that men could have any responsibility for a woman not having children). And so it was actually with Sarah that God would work to bring the promise to reality. Even though the three visitors engage Abraham in conversation, the topic of discussion would be Sarah. So Abraham, for reasons to be suggested later, seems to be moved to the background at this point as the three men and Sarah take center stage.
The second part of this passage turns attention to Sarah (vv. 9-15). Earlier in the story Sarah had played a very minor role. In fact, on two different occasions, Abraham had excluded Sarah from the promise (12:10-20, 16:1-4). Now, the focus shifts to God's action with Sarah. It is interesting that in accordance with custom, the visitors did not address Sarah directly. But they also knew from that cultural context that Sarah would be nearby in the tent as they began their conversation with Abraham concerning Sarah. It is clear that even though the conversation was with Abraham, the intended audience was Sarah. It is ironic that after all of Abraham's struggle to come to terms with the promise, even in his attempts to exclude Sarah unwittingly or not, he was now reduced to the intermediary in a conversation with the men and Sarah.
The message they brought was another affirmation of the promise that had been first brought to Abraham 25 years earlier in chapter 12 (see the commentary on Gen 12:1-9). There Abraham had been called by God to leave the security of his home and strike out on a journey to be guided by God toward an unknown future of blessing for himself and the world through him. That entire promise had always rested on a child who would be Abraham's heir and heir of the promise. Yet Sarah was barren and could have no children. And now both Abraham and Sarah were too old to have children (vv. 11-12). That tension has governed the entire story, and still hangs in the air in this passage. And yet now the promise has been affirmed to Sarah as well. True, it was still indirectly as the men spoke to Abraham. But there is no question here that Sarah was included as an active partner in the promise.
We are not told how the three men received the message they brought, whether they were directly messengers of God (at least not yet), or if they were even aware of the import of the message. None of those questions are important in the narrative, except as our own curiosity raises them (which means they will likely not be answered). The entire focus of the interchange between the men and Abraham concerns the promise. While that promise and the tension it brought had been a factor since chapter 12 some 25 years earlier, God had gradually revealed more details of how the promise would unfold. That may have been in response to Abraham's own doubts and failures. But in any case, God had gradually defined the promise in increasingly specific terms, first simply as a great nation, then in terms of Abraham's own son, then in terms of Abraham and Sarah.
Now for the first time a specific time frame was placed on the promise (v. 10). While some translations say "in due season" (vv. 10, 14) the Hebrew actually reads "at the time of reviving" or "at the time of life" (Heb: ka'at chayah), that is, in the springtime. That places the unfolding promise in the birth of this child within the time span of a single year (confirmed later in the story when we learn that Abraham was 100 years old when the child was born; cf. 17:1).
We could easily have grown impatient to this point in the story with Abraham's continued failure to grasp the promise. And we could easily have cringed as he had earlier laughed at God's declaration that he would have a son (17:17). But just as easily we can sympathize with Sarah's outburst of laughter at overhearing the promise. She has not really been part of Abraham's faith journey in the story, except to follow Abraham and to suffer the embarrassment of being the one to block the possibility of the promise unfolding. In fact, the only times that Sarah has entered the narrative has been to draw attention to her plight of barrenness (16:2, 5).
So we can easily laugh with Sarah here as she realized the impossibility of what she had just heard (v. 12). She had been at a dead end for all these years, and there was no real reason to expect that would change now, especially since what was being promised was even more physically impossible than it had ever been (v. 11). The incongruity between what was promised and the reality of the world in which she lived and of her own body that she knew all too well was simply too much to take. The absurdity of that incongruity was simply laughable!
And then the response of one of the men, now clearly identified for the first time as the Lord (v. 13), raised the central issue that the story had been tracking with Abraham and now with Sarah: "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" It was a penetrating question that went far beyond their own promise. For what was at stake in that question was actually the nature of God in the world.
To answer either way would have been to define not only how they would live in the world, but would have also defined the kind of world in which they lived, because finally it would have been to define the kind of God who governed the world. If there were some human impossibilities that lay beyond God's ability, then God would have been circumscribed by human expectations and what humans could see as possible. So finally he would not be God at all, or at least he would be a different kind of God, one shaped in human terms. Yet if there were no endings or dead ends in human existence that lay beyond God's ability to bring newness and open new possibilities, then there were no final endings and any future was possible. In that possibility and openness God could be God in ways that exceeded the limitations of any human conception.
Abraham and Sarah were not called to answer that question here. They were not yet ready to answer it adequately. God himself would answer it in the second part of this reading from chapter 21. The question was simply left hanging, followed by yet another affirmation of the promise in the repeated announcement of the birth of a child within a year (v. 14). The fact was, Abraham had already answered the question in his own laughter, just as Sarah had just answered it in hers. From their own perspectives, the answer had been yes, there are some things that are too difficult for God. And yet, God would act in their own history to reveal that he is not a God limited by human impossibilities, but a God who can bring newness into the most final of human endings (Isa 42:9, 43:19, 48:6, Ezek 37:1-14; cf. 2 Cor 5:17). That suggests that this impending birth is about more than just a birth or even about a promise. We have some hint now that the birth announced here would be revelatory of the nature of God and his work in the world.
The interchange with which this part of the reading closes is interesting. As Sarah heard the response from the Lord, she was afraid and tried to deny her own doubt. Her laughter had been "to herself" (v. 12). It had not been an open and defiant laugh, nor had it been the laughter of the cynic who has abandoned any basis to believe. It was the laughter of impossibility that arose from the incongruity between biological fact and promise. And yet, the private laughter that she intended to share with no one became a matter of public conversation. Her fear came from the realization that not only her private thoughts of doubt were bared before these men and thereby before the Lord, but also from the realization that her laughter was, indeed, the laughter of doubt. Her denial that she laughed was not just a lie, for she did not fall on the ground laughing as Abraham had done (17:17). But the laughter of the heart was no less an expression of doubt, and the Lord would not let her get away with hiding behind such a mask. That mask was ripped away by the simple statement of fact, "Yes, you did laugh." And like Abraham for so many years, Sarah was left to wait for the promise.
The second half of this reading skips ahead two chapters to the actual birth of the promised child. In the meantime we are told about the judgment of God on Sodom and Gomorra and the subsequent rescue of Lot and his family from the destruction of the cities of the plain (ch. 19). There is also a second incident in which Abraham gave away Sarah, this time to the King of Gerar, in order to save his own life (ch. 20). In terms of the flow of the narrative, this combination of the birth announcement to Sarah and the birth of the child is probably a legitimate move to provide some closure to the promise of chapter 18 and to provide a manageable reading. In doing so, however, three important points need to be kept in mind.
First, the interlude of these two chapters serves a narrative function to leave the promise hanging in the air for yet another span of time while life unfolds. Even though the promise has been reduced to a single year, it is still a year of waiting. And so we wait with Abraham and Sarah for the promise while the time is filled with other events that require more immediate attention.
Second, Abraham's intercession for the city of Sodom marks an important step in his growth. Finally, after all this time, Abraham seemed to be moving toward some understanding of the third part of the promise, that of being a blessing to the world. While the following narrative of his encounter with the King of Gerar shows that he still had some things to learn, there is some indication that he was slowly moving toward fulfilling his calling.
Third, we must take seriously the second account of Abraham's cowardice and lack of faith. Some scholars have suggested that this is simply a variant doublet of the first story and is the result of imperfectly edited texts. They would say that this story entered the traditions at more than one level or context producing multiple versions of the same story. While that might even be true on a source critical level, in terms of the narrative itself it cannot be dismissed so easily. As it stands in the text, this story (ch. 20) serves to demonstrate that in spite of all his journey and in spite of his progress in coming to terms with the promise, when confronted with the reality of life Abraham was still willing to place the promise at risk. While we could argue that his earlier experience told him that God would protect Sarah, that is not evident in the story. And even if it were, it would be exceedingly presumptuous on Abraham's part. The simple fact is, Abraham was still not the man of faith that he would become in chapter 22. He had come a long way from Haran. But he has not yet arrived at where he needed to be.
The actual account of the birth seems almost anticlimactic after the long narrative from chapter 12 where the promise had first been given. It had been a long and tortuous journey for Abraham. And it would not yet be over even with the birth of the child. But the matter-of-fact way in which the birth itself is recounted serves to demonstrate the certainty with which the promise had been made all along. From the couple's perspective, it is certainly a marvelous event. Yet from the perspective of the narrator this is simply the way God works in the world in such situations.
The low-key approach of the narrative at this point may also serve to direct attention away from any particular preoccupation with the miraculous itself, and to lead to a focus on the purposes for which this miracle had occurred. While it is the beginning of the newness that God had promised in chapter 12, it is only the first step of a long process that will cover many centuries and involve many other people.
The birth narrative turns around the naming of the child, which carries tremendous theological weight in the story. The child's name is much more than a smooth word play. In ancient eastern culture names carried far more significance than in modern western culture. Names communicated the character or quality of a person, signified a pivotal event in the life of parents, or marked a change in direction in a person's life. Later in Israel's history, names were often used to make theological confessions or were used to communicate a truth about God (for example, Hos 1:2-9, Isa 7:3, 14, 8:3).
The name Isaac means laughter, and we must see the two dimensions of laughter that are at work in the story to catch the theological significance. Both Abraham and Sarah had laughed at the improbability of any newness coming from their own worn out bodies (17:17, 18:12). That laughter was a laughter born of doubt from the human impossibility that they had lived for so many years. And yet the laughter that broke forth from Sarah at the birth of the child was the laughter of joy at the newness God had brought into impossibility. It was the laughter of unrestrained delight at the promised newness that now Sarah could hold in her hands. It was that delightful laughter that Sarah invited all to share (v. 6).
The child "laughter" becomes a living symbol of the depths of hopelessness that God can transform into hope. It is a confession that God is the kind of God who takes the worst and bleakest of our endings and despair and, at the very point of our impossibility, brings a newness that shatters all of our settled structures of what is possible. Finally, it was God who transformed the laughter of hopelessness into the laughter of joy. And Isaac became a daily reminder of both.
That contrast is summarized in Sarah's final question: "Who would ever have said . . . ?" The question is rhetorical, but is fraught with meaning. There are two answers to the question. Sarah is likely expressing the question from the human perspective, to which the answer is "no one." No one would have ever thought or dreamed that this could be, let alone voiced such an improbability.
But from the perspective of the promise, the answer must be, "God said!" Indeed, this is exactly what we are told in the story, "The Lord did with Sarah just as he said" (21:1). This contrast between what human beings say, or cannot say, from their own perspective, and what God does say from his perspective drives to the heart of the entire story. Finally, we are called to listen to God and let him speak what we dare not think, and can never say.
There is clearly an emphasis here on both Abraham and Sarah as co-participants in the event (v. 3). That may not be surprising from a biological point of view. But from the perspective of the unfolding story, as well as coming to this text from chapter 18, it is an important point. It took Abraham a long time to realize Sarah's role in the promise. And Abraham still filled the patriarchal role here in naming the child and in circumcising him. The narrator likewise accedes to this role in giving the age of Abraham and calling Isaac the son "born to him."
And yet Sarah is still there. It was she who gave the meaning to the name of the child (cf. 17:17-19). And she had the last word in the birth narrative, finally summarizing the miraculous nature of the event that allowed the unfolding of the promise (vv. 6-7). There is a certain degree of subtle subversion in the story here where, in the context of a supposedly patriarchal society in which all the power and authority belonged to males, Sarah has emerged as an active participant in the promise. This subtle undercurrent in the story may provide us with a new window into the impact of the text.
There is clearly a major theme here that can provide a rather straightforward preaching path for this reading, as well as a subtler one that may be equally profitable in some contexts. On the first level perhaps the best avenue for preaching is to allow the narrative to unfold and let the story itself proclaim the message. Finally, this is a confession about God and his work in the world, whether he is the kind of God who can be trusted. It also explores the ability and willingness of God to bring newness into the world in the face of human impossibility.
This entire reading revolves around the question from the visitor, "Is anything too difficult for God?" While we can too often provide an easy creedal "No" to that question when it is asked in the abstract, when it comes from the realities of life the answer is not so easy. We live in a world dominated by rational ways of thinking that carefully weigh the possibilities in logical and manageable terms. We tend to divide up the world into compartments of possibility, knowing that some things are in God's domain and can be easily accomplished, such as forgiveness of sin, personal blessing in the form of good feelings or well being, or even direction for one's life. And then just as quickly we can articulate those areas of life in which we know from all our human logic and experience that God is quite unable to work. And therefore we end up expressing what we think is really impossible with God. It is not that we would actually deny that he could work there. But we are really convinced that he simply does not do so very often, if ever. Those areas are just too difficult.
In much the same manner as Abraham and Sarah, we cordon off segments of life that we functionally believe are simply impossible. Those areas will be different for different people depending on their own personal experiences as well as what they have been taught intentionally or not, to believe about God's work in the world. Sarah's bareness was a human reality, and there is nothing unusual about her attitude of functionally placing the promise in the realm of the impossible. So on some level, it seems that many people would answer "yes" to the visitor's question. And so we laugh the laugh of doubt, sometimes to ourselves and sometimes to others.
Yet, this text can call us to reexamine what we think God is about in our world, to stop and think about our laughter in light of who God has revealed himself to be. It can call us to reevaluate what the power of God can do in the world and in our lives as we trust him to work. It is a call to a vision of new possibilities and renewal, not by human effort and determination, but solely by the grace and power of God to bring his newness into the endings of our lives.
There are many people in our modern culture who face dead ends in life, from the crippling effects of disrupted relationships to personal tragedies and failures to illness and death. They are like Sarah in Genesis 11 and live in a barren world with no future. This text proclaims a God for whom such endings are not endings at all, but the arena for new possibilities.
Here we must always be cautious that we do not promise people too much, that we do not move to specifics and promise what God has not himself promised. We cannot simply move into possibility thinking and assume that all is needed is a change of attitude to create new beginnings from within ourselves and our own determination. Some endings, some dead ends, some barrenness will not yield to such humanism. We cannot grant the promises that come from God, and so we need to admit that we cannot determine for others what direction the work of God will take in their lives. We simply cannot chart the journey for them.
But there is a powerful sense from this text that we can proclaim the nature of this God as the one who brings newness into the dead ends of life, who can do for us and with us what we cannot do for ourselves, who can turn the laughter of our own doubts into the playful laughter of joy as we witness his newness springing forth (the verbal form of the name Isaac can also mean "play"). It is that God that we trust with our barrenness.
Also within this text there is a more subtle theme that sounds in a minor key. We have noted the movement of Sarah to the foreground within this passage. Abraham is still there as the patriarch, but Sarah actually takes center stage. After all, it is really she who brings the life. Since she is blamed for the barrenness, it is she who is the vehicle for newness. The indirect interchange with the visitors also serves to move Abraham to the background and allows Sarah to become a player in the divine drama.
On one level this may serve to model the very message that the passage is communicating, that with God there are no marginal players in God's work in the world. While culture places Sarah on the sidelines while the main participants play out their roles, God through the visitors places Sarah alongside Abraham as a partner in God's purposes in the world. Within the story, that becomes its own form of newness that shatters even the barriers and boundaries of social expectation that often leads, for some people in some circumstances, to their own form of barrenness.
On another level, this text is most likely a very subtle commentary on male dominated patriarchal power in which women were marginalized. Abraham had his own hand in doing that in ways that were excessive even for the culture of the time. His own cowardice and willingness to compromise Sarah for his own personal safety emerges from the story as a scathing commentary on the emptiness of such patriarchy.
Sarah is not presented as a hero here. She laughs along with Abraham, just as earlier she had agreed to try to solve the problem posed by the promise with human effort in orchestrating the disastrous attempt to force the promise with Hagar. And later she will practice her own form of incomprehension of the promise (see the commentary on Genesis 21:8-21). But here she is presented as the center of attention as the whole story draws to its climax. In this sense, the role of Sarah becomes a subversion of patriarchal power, a subtle but seditious commentary on a male dominated society that was all too willing to grasp the promise as only their own to the exclusion of women.
As such, this text can be proclaimed within the context of such marginalization of any group or people by those in power as a way to confess that God is also the kind of God who calls Abraham, and any bearer of promise, to share that promise with the very ones that they have attempted to exclude from the promise. Here, this text becomes a message of hope for the oppressed and disenfranchised, a message that becomes a challenge to any structures of power that result in giving away as expendable those who should be sharing in the promise.
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