Friday, March 8, 2013

They Were Wrong

"And we all know what happens when we take matters into our own hands, as the story of Abraham and Sarah reminds us!" 

It was said as an aside, intoned as a given, mentioned in passing by an educated man as he dissected an unrelated text from the New Testament about the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit.  It was a bit of a non sequitur but it was offered without much explanation: Everyone, after all, knows the story of Abraham and Sarah, and everyone knows what happens when we faithlessly "take matters into our own hands" instead of "waiting on the Lord."

Wait on the Lord...

The truth is, I've heard the Abraham and Sarah reference in some form or another at a dozen churches; I know exactly what they are talking about. I grew up hearing the story preached passionately from the pulpit by a stocky ex-police-officer with a thick mustache, always with an emphasis on the manipulative, impatient woman who did not submit to God, who did not wait on God and brought disaster on herself and the world in her faithlessness and disobedience.  (Interestingly, the one thing with which I was not familiar when I first heard these stories was the notion of mysogyny.  But that's a different soapbox for another time.)

But I discovered something interesting one day as I poured through the Old Testament for the second or third time.  
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I discovered no such thing.

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Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward. 
But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord ... You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir." 
This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir. Look up at the heavens and count the stars ... so shall your offspring be.  
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. 
Genesis 15:1-3
This was the promise given to Abram one fine day as the  man lounged in the sun. He had just successfully pulled off the daring rescue of his nephew, Lot.  As I read the familiar words I was suddenly confused by what it didn't say.  In fact, I grew suspicious and flipped back a couple pages...
The Lord said to Abram  
Leave your country, your people, and your father's household and go into the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:1-3
Go into a land that I will show you ... I will make you a great nation ... 

Now, I don't know about anyone else, but it seems to me like God was being a little, well, vague in these divine revelations.  

     "Get up and go!"
     "Okay. Where, God?"
     "I'll let you know when we get there."

In fact, the author of Hebrews notes:  
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going (11:8).
It seems like Abram didn't know a lot of things - consistently - and what I began to notice that 2nd or 3rd time through reading the story was that God seemed to have a particular and peculiar way of showing up with him.  God didn't actually tell Abram much of anything - not at first.  No, God had this way of giving Abram only so much information and leaving a lot of things out.  

So when God first spoke The Promise to Abram, it was just, "Go into a land that I will show you ... I will make you a great nation."  There were no what's, why's, or how's.  Just go and I will bless you and the world.

Indeed, when we pick up the story in chapter 15, Abram is a pretty significant nation in his own right.  His household was so large and affluent that he just laid siege upon a neighboring kingdom and successfully reclaimed the slightly estranged side of his family.  Already the land which God had called him to possess was being forced to take notice of Abram and his clan.  In fact, Abram so believed God's promise that he did not consider it unfulfilled to pass his inheritance on to his faithful servant, the cultural practice of the day. God had already given him everything.  

"What can you give me, God?" Abram noted.  Only then did God clarify, saying specifically from your own body will come your heir. 

Oh.  Well.  That's different.

So, wait, if God never said Abram was going to have children of his own the first time around, that doesn't exactly let them off the hook, does it?  Because this is the point in the story in which they "take matters into their own hands," right?

Interesting question.  And as long as we're asking questions, let's continue to ask the question of what God said - and didn't say.  For example, I noticed that even in chapter 15 God didn't say a word about Sarai in all of this.

So Abram had a different kind of promise this time - a promise of an heir, the promise of a child.  But Sarai is barren.  And it is the custom of the culture that, when a wife cannot bear an heir, she gives her maidservant to her husband for the sake of carrying on the family line.  So Sarai gave Hagar, her maidservant, to Abram, and Abram had a son.

That's pretty much how the story reads. There are no whispered questions or confidential asides decrying any of the parties involved.  There is no shaking of the head or the fist, no pronouncement of God's judgment.  So I wonder: Is this a story of faithLESSness or faithFULness?  It seems to me that Abram and Sarai were so convinced that God's promise would come true that they planned their lives around it.  They were anticipating it, expecting it, looking for it, and willing to submit themselves to it - from the beginning - even when it didn't look a particular way - even when they didn't know what the heck they were getting themselves into.

No promise had been given to Sarai at this point in the story - except vicariously, and  then it was the promise that Abram would have a child.  It wasn't about Sarai.  In fact, women were mostly property anyway.  There was no specific reason for her to think God would fulfill His covenant through her and He certainly wasn't under any obligation to.  They believed God's promise, so when it became evident that it would not come through Sarai, she turned her face toward the fulfillment of God's word as He might see fit.

It was only then - only after Ishmael was born to Hagar and, once again, Abram was lounging in the summer sun with a son - that God, true to form, popped in and offered the rest of the story.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said:  
 I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers ... You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham ... As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah.  I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her. 
Genesis 17:1-5,15-16.
 Huh.

You know, it's easy for us to look back on all of this and say that they should have known God's intentions the whole time.  It's easy for us, with the story stretching behind us into history and not before us into the unknown, to say, "God promised Abraham and Sarah a son. It took a long time to fulfill that promise and they lost faith, taking matters into their own hands. But that wasn't what God intended.  Ishmael wasn't what God intended."  But the only way we can make those kinds of statements is by reading ourselves and our modern Christian culture into the story.  Even God himself said,
"I will surely bless Ishmael; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers.  He will be the father of 12 rulers and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac" (17:20-21).
God promised to make Abram into a great nation, into many nations. If Ishmael had died off then maybe we could say, "Yeah, that didn't seem to work so well."  But he didn't.  Ishmael became a father of many nations himself, fulfilling God's promise to Abram.  In fact, it is almost as if God fulfilled his promise to Abram not once but three times: God made Abram's household a great nation that blessed those around him (see the story of Lot and Sodom); then God made Abram the father of nations through Ishmael, a son from his own body, and blessed those nations because of him; and finally God gave Abram a son by Sarah, with whom he made a particular covenant that meant Abram became the father of even more nations and even more blessing came to him and because of him through it.  It's a thrilling story that speaks to both the mystery and abundance of God's promises, doesn't it?

So, to recap: Abraham and Sarah weren't modern.  And they weren't Christian.  And the truth is - as far as I know - we have absolutely no biblical reason to believe that theirs is a story of faithlessness, manipulation, or failure to wait on God.  In fact, if anything, I think this story is the exact opposite example: This is what it actually looks like to wait on God.  This is how we are to be faithful!

That's right, I'm going to say it:

All the pastors I know who have preached on this story are wrong.

Further, if we are an Exodus people - if we are a people brought out of slavery, brought into the wilderness, brought through to be made faithful, and brought up to take the land - then not only are they wrong, but they have denied us a vital narrative to help us on our journey.

People of God: This is what it looks like to be faithful...