Musings on Scripture

– and what isn’t always said

Tag: Abraham

Trinity 5A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 24:34-67 (excerpts): A wife for Isaac

34Abraham’s servant said to Laban: 35“The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys; 36and Sarah, my master’s wife, bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. 37My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose land I live; 38but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’”

42“I came today to the spring, and said, ‘O Lord, the God of my master Abraham, if now you will only make successful the way I am going! 43I am standing here by the spring of water; let the young woman who comes out to draw, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’ 44and who will say to me, ‘Drink, and I will draw for your camels also’ — let her be the woman whom the Lord has appointed for my master’s son.”

45“Before I had finished speaking in my heart, there was Rebekah coming out with her water-jar on her shoulder; and she went down to the spring, and drew. I said to her, ‘Please let me drink.’ 46She quickly let down her jar from her shoulder, and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels. 47Then I asked her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ She said, ‘The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor’s son, whom Milcah bore to him.’ So I put the ring on her nose, and the bracelets on her arms. 48Then I bowed my head and worshipped the Lord, and blessed the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to obtain the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son. 49Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.”

58They called Rebekah, and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ She said, ‘I will.’ 59So they sent away their sister Rebekah and her nurse along with Abraham’s servant and his men, 60and they blessed Rebekah and said to her,
‘May you, our sister, become
thousands of myriads;
may your offspring gain possession
of the gates of their foes.’
61Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way.

62Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. 63Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. 64Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, 65and said to the servant, ‘Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?’ The servant said, ‘It is my master.’ So she took her veil and covered herself. 66The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. 67Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

When I train readers for their important role in the service I use the story of Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus, change one name to a pronoun, and ask the students to listen as if they had never heard the story before and raise a hand when they can identify the participants. No-one has yet raised a hand before I have finished. Here we have a classic example of where continuity is absolutely essential. The NRSV starts “So he said”; The New English Bible puts it “He answered”; the Good News has “he began”. That’s great if we’ve read previous verses, but not when starting at verse 34. Who is this person who is a servant to Abraham, and to whom is he talking? I appreciate that to get answers to those questions requires us to go back to the beginning of the chapter where we learn that the servant was Abraham’s oldest servant, though not named, and he is talking to Laban, brother of Rebekah, who will become Isaac’s wife, and who is part of Abraham’s extended family where he was born. This whole story is far too long to read in an Anglican Eucharist service, and there is plenty of repetition to exclude, so let’s look at what the story entails.

In ancient biblical times the man was accepted as the head of the household. Abraham was old when he fathered Isaac. Two weeks ago the reading from Genesis told us of his other son, Ishmael, born of Abraham’s servant Hagar, being sent away so that he was no longer part of the family, effectively leaving Isaac as the only son to inherit a vast fortune. Today’s reading tells of the search for a kindred woman to become Isaac’s wife. Arranged marriages still occur today in many parts of the world. In biblical times it was such a common event, and a girl grew up expecting someone to take her to be his wife even though they might never have met. Abraham’s oldest servant might well have been Eliezer of Damascus, who would inherit everything if Isaac died without children, so it is remarkable that the person seeking a bride might be the very person who would lose everything if he succeeded, yet he honoured his commitment to Abraham. Would we?

In the verses leading up to this extract the servant had been practising his lines ready for an encounter with the one whom he trusted God had chosen to be a wife for Isaac. He had travelled some distance with camels and gifts, though we aren’t told how far, and had a firm belief that God would provide, so when Rebekah turns up at the well and provides water for him and for his camels, he is overjoyed. These days, if a loving parent sought out a bride for a son I could imagine the reaction would be quite different, but we have made huge steps towards recognising women as equal to men, and true love as being more important than where the wife originated.

As would be expected in that time, Laban and his wife Bethuel, were happy to have Rebekah leave the household and travel back to where the party would find Isaac. The shift in location and the separation from kinsfolk would be somewhat like it was for “Our Mary” when she crossed the world to marry Prince Fredrick of Denmark, though, in that case, it was love which brought them together and they are frequent visitors to Australia.

On the group’s arrival where Isaac was living there was joy at a wife being found for him, and, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” This is one of very few references in the Hebrew Scriptures to the relationship between husband and wife being one of love. Rebekah is installed as the new matriarch of the family. Isaac was reportedly a sworn bachelor and 40 years old when he found love with Rebekah, a remarkable fact for the age.

The stories in Genesis were originally passed on orally, and had variations within the different groups which followed. There is conjecture that, because we Westerners cannot pin down archeological data to correlate with the stories, that they are fictional. If the same thought process were applied to the histories of Aboriginal people in Australia we would be denying them their very real history and existence. Whereas there are many examples of conflicting information, especially in the early scriptures, they do not detract from the very real presence of these people through centuries.

Can we step back from our insistence of having everything spelled out ‘historically’ and accept the theological messages which come from passages such as these? Too often we reject the message because of some inconsequential “error”.

Lent 2 A

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Genesis 12:1-4a

1The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.

Short, sweet, and loaded. We meet Abram, whose original name meant “exalted father”, before his name was changed to Abraham (“father of many nations”). In earlier chapters of Genesis we hear of his wife, Sarai, who was barren, and their journey with Abram’s father to Haran, in what is now known as Turkey. By the time we get to this story Abram is already 75 years old, and past the life expectancy of his era. Sarai, too, is getting on in years, and well past the normal age for bearing children, so this couple would be expecting to live out their twilight years as an aging couple. Poor old Abram was given an instruction he would most likely have thought was totally unreasonable: leave the place you now call home, leave your family, your friends, your possessions, and take only your wife to live in a land far far away. I could imagine Sarai saying along the way “are we there yet?” because the journey would be long and tiring.

Abram was a man of great faith, believing that God would provide for his and Sarai’s needs along the way, and would give them a wonderful place to live when they got to The Promised Land, but God did not expect them to travel without some help and encouragement. We often hear about Sarai, then Sarah, laughing at what she heard about her having children many years later, but what of Abram when the old, childless man – and let’s not forget how badly adults were treated if they had no children – was told he would become a great nation. There is no indication, here, of God setting a maximum age for being called into a special relationship with the Creator. Anything is possible with God. Anything!

This is a personal invitation from God, supported by a series of personal commitments to Abram, and, by association, to Sarai. The language may be directed to Abram, but the message is clearly for both. “I will show you (the land)”, “I will bless you”, “I will make you a great nation”, “I will make your name great”, “I will bless those who bless you”, “I will curse those who curse you”, “through you I will bless all the families of the earth”. The great “I AM” is emphasising that He will … do these things.

How many of us would think of taking up the challenge Abram was given? Give up family, house, car, job, friends, contacts, comforts, and knowing how things work in your area, are likely to be far too great for most of us, but Abram left Haran, despite his age. Abram trusted God. Do we trust God as much as Abram did? Are we prepared to get up and leave everything behind and follow where God wants us to go, ignoring how old we might be, or feel? We might not have to physically leave our homes to take up an assignment from God which involves us pushing boundaries, taking new approaches, and encountering hostile reception from those around us. Are we still prepared?

If you want to read about names in the Bible ask me to send you a link. Names were really important to people in biblical times.

18th June 2017

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

A female patient in her 90s arrived at the doctor’s surgery with a bad dose of hiccoughs. Within seconds of seeing the doctor she rushed out laughing loudly and with no hiccoughs. A colleague asked how the doctor had cured the lady, and the reply was “I told her she was pregnant.” Poor Sarah got a similar message – only she didn’t laugh at a doctor, she laughed at what God had said.

© Cross Theology

Genesis 18:1-15

1The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, as he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. 2He looked up and saw three men standing near him. On seeing them, he ran from the tent door. Bowing low 3he said, ‘Sirs, if I have deserved your favour, do not go past your servant without a visit. 4Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet; and rest under this tree 5while I fetch a little food so that you may refresh yourselves. Afterwards you may continue the journey which has brought you my way.’ They said, ‘Very well, do as you say.’ 6So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quick, take three measures of flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ 7He then hastened to the herd, chose a fine, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who prepared it at once. 8He took curds and milk and the calf which was now ready, set it before them, and there, under the tree, waited on them himself while they ate.

9They asked him where Sarah, his wife, was, and he replied ‘She is in the tent.’ 10One of them said, ‘About this time next year I shall come back to you, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’ Now Sarah was listening at the opening of the tent, close by him. 11Both Sarah and Abraham were very old, Sarah being well past the age of childbearing, 12so she laughed to herself and said, ‘At my time of life I am past bearing children, and my husband is old.’ 13The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Can I really bear a child now that I am so old?” 14Is anything impossible for the Lord? In due season, at this time next year, I shall come back to you, and Sarah will have a son.’ 15Because she was frightened Sarah lied and denied that she had laughed; but He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

Text © The Revised English Bible, published by OUP/CUP, used with permission.

Some English translations tell us that Abraham was near oak trees, others keep to the Hebrew terebinth, but if we tell this story in an Australian context we might say he was under the shade of a coolabah tree. Does it really matter which tree he was near? If we’re after the meaning of this passage of scripture we can do what the Israelites did, and tell the story in the context of the listeners. It’s a hot day, and three visitors arrive unannounced. What would we do? What would you do? In four weeks of walking around suburbs, handing out political material and talking to voters ahead of an election in March this year, in temperatures so high that I literally melted the soles of a good pair of shoes, I had three people, just three, offer me a drink. Abraham, on the other hand, welcomed the visitors, got Sarah to make some cakes – the NRSV suggests he went for bread but asked for cake – and even had a calf killed and prepared. One calf, for three people! I can’t eat more than 200 grams of beef in one meal; here we’re talking of more than 200 kilograms for just three people. Excuse the pun, but isn’t that a bit of overkill? When I prepare a simple roast it takes an hour per kilogram (or thereabouts) just to cook, and a whole calf would take many hours after being slaughtered and cut up, yet these travellers were fed and watered in the heat of one day, so the message obviously is not about over-eating, or supremely fast preparation of meat: it’s about hospitality for strangers. “Truly I tell you that anything you did for my brothers and sisters, you did for me” [Matt 25:40, REB]. Paul’s frequent message was that we establish a good relationship with God through faith, not works, but James points out that if we have faith then we will do the works which God calls us to do. In this case Abraham’s response to his faith is to provide food and water for the travellers, without asking questions. Is that what we do? If an old man turned up on the church steps ahead of a service, looking unkempt and having slept on the streets the night before, would we send him away while we have our prayer session, or share communion, or would we welcome him in because he just might be God coming to see what good works our faith will provide? Who would be more pleased, Satan, because he had succeeded in putting a wedge between us and anyone who was even slightly different in some way, or God, who could see us showing unconditional love?

Did the travellers name Sarah when asking where she was? If they did it would indicate some previous meeting and remembering of names, which, if course, is easy for God. With Abraham already well advanced in age it would be assumed that his wife was also well past child-bearing age, so is it really surprising that she laughed when one of the travellers said she would have a son within a year? “Laugh and the world laughs with you” (from ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox 1850-1919), and remember that God is everywhere in the world, so when you laugh God laughs with you too – even if you are laughing at what He says.

There are times in our lives when we often think something is impossible, but impossible isn’t a word in God’s vocabulary. Everything is possible with God, even bearing children at a ripe old age. Does that mean that women who don’t have children after 40 don’t have faith enough to have more children? Of course not! God does, however, do what we think is impossible every day. People who have miraculous escapes, or who are restored to full functioning life after being under water for far longer than the four minutes it takes for the brain to die from lack of oxygen, are just two ways in which we see God’s hand at work. Have faith and God might surprise you, quite possibly more so if you laugh at the prospect. Even if she didn’t emit a single sound suggesting laughter God still knew she had laughed, and knew that her lie was because the thought of being pregnant at her age was incongruous. God knows everything about us, even our thoughts as they form, so there is no need to hide those thoughts from God, just to ask for His help to channel any bad thoughts to make good ones.

25th September 2016

Published / by Steven Secker / Leave a Comment

Luke 16:19-31
19“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Text © New Revised Standard Version, used with permission.

The “villain” in this story which is familiar to any regular church-goer is described as a rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, and who feeds sumptuously every day. These days we have a wide range of colours available, and the price varies little, but in biblical times purple was an expensive colour which was generally restricted, partly because of the cost, to royalty and people in places of great responsibility. This description, then, is a very thinly veiled reference to the Pharisees and, particularly, to the Temple hierarchy, who loved to dress in expensive outfits, and who expected those beneath them to provide more than ample food, often at great expense. The poor man, not to be confused with the Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, represents the starving millions who would have enough food if our rich character would only share some of his edible wealth. Translations from the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic of our scriptures all too often misses the sense in the text. Here, Lazarus didn’t just decide to lie down at the rich man’s gate: the Greek suggests that he was dumped there, inviting our rich man to show some compassion. Instead, it is the dogs who tend to Lazarus’ sores. We might cringe at the thought of dogs licking our wounds, but in doing so they were providing first aid to someone in need.

If we wonder what was the cause of the death of our two characters then we miss the most important points of the story. Despite finding himself being tormented the rich man doesn’t appear to have learned how to approach others. He speaks to Abraham as an equal, rather than as God’s chosen one to lead his people, somewhat like a young footballer with little talent talking to the Queen in the same way as he would to his team-mates. Our rich man also treats Lazarus as if he were a slave, not talking directly to him, but asking Abraham to send him to cool his tongue in his hour of need. He truly hasn’t got the message that he’s being tormented because of what he has done, or not done, during his earthly life.

There is a modern-day story about a priest who was warned to leave his home because a dam wall had burst and the town was about to be flooded, but refused help three times, only to drown. When the rich man in this parable wants Lazarus to warn his brothers about his fate Abraham reminds him that the prophets have already been warning people for a long time, and they have chosen not to listen. Then, in a precursor to Christ’s own resurrection, Abraham points out that even if someone returned from the dead that person’s warning wouldn’t be heeded. Christ Himself returned from the dead, but few people accepted that it was Him, and fewer still heeded His advice. These days, with our scientific expertise, people try to find alternative explanations to events which don’t fit our normal experience, missing the message which they should hear. It was no different then.

How close are we to either of the characters in this parable? Do we take advantage of the riches we can accumulate in our lifetime, and ignore the needs of others who are less fortunate than us? Do we treat others as if they were slaves to make us more comfortable, or to get us more possessions which we leave behind when we die? Do we even think about others in the world around us? Even worse, do we see the people in need around us, or are we too focussed on what we want to notice their existence.

It’s good to have a stable home in which to live, and enough money to provide for our basic needs, but it’s far too easy to want bigger or better things, or more possessions that we think will make us happier, and it’s far too easy to lose sight of those who are in need. As to the target of this parable, the old favourite “the Pharisees” it’s no surprise that they didn’t understand, or didn’t act on, the message Christ was giving them. What about today’s church leaders – and that includes me?