Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
In church (at least in my church) we always hear about how awesome Abraham’s faith was and how God richly rewarded his faith. All of this is of course true, Abraham almost always did what God told him. Because of this, Scripture forever reminds us that, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). However, Abraham was not a flawless person; he made mistakes and had a surprisingly shifty family too. The Holy Spirit showed me the flaws and cracks all throughout Abraham’s line in order to remind us that God does not bless based on perfection, but rather on faith.
Let’s check out the Treaty at Beersheba. History records,
At that time Abimelech and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you are living as an alien the same kindness I have shown to you (Genesis 21:22-23).
This sort of thing wasn’t uncommon in Abraham’s day. Abraham had quite a bit of livestock and people, so he and Abimelech agreed to a peace treaty so that they wouldn’t end up fighting over the land. Again, this is pretty basic…that is until you remember that Abraham actually has some history with Abimelech. Let’s turn back the clock to the first time Abraham entered Abimelech’s city. We read,
Now Abraham moved on from there in to the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her (Genesis 20:1-2).
Upon entering the city, Abraham told a half truth (because Sarah really was his half sister) and almost immediately he lost her to Abimelech, who didn’t know they were married. This could have ended very badly for Abraham, however the Lord stepped in before things got too messed up. The story continues,
But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.”
Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy and innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother’? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands” (Genesis 20:3-5).
Abimelech wasn’t in the business of wife stealing, so he quickly confronted Abraham about this rather awkward situation that had been created through Abraham not being completely honest. Genesis 20:9 records,
Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.”
Basically Abimelech’s response was, “What did I do to you?!” He was pretty upset about almost stealing another man’s wife. Abraham justified himself by saying that Abimelech lived in a pagan land and probably would’ve killed him over Sarah. Abraham also notes, “Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife” (Genesis 20:12). Congrats Abe, you didn’t completely lie to the people of the city. We can see through this episode that the treaty of Beersheba wasn’t some normal peace meeting. Rather, it seems that Abimelech forced Abraham to make a treaty with him because he didn’t trust him. Therefore, he felt it necessary to make Abraham take an oath to maintain peaceful relations. But Abraham wasn’t done yet. He decided to use this newfound peace as a chance to complain. Immediately after Abimelech laid down the terms of the treaty we read,
Abraham said, “I swear it.”
Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized. But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today” (Genesis 21:24-26).
Rather than getting things cleaned up before making the treaty (though, to his credit it wasn’t entirely finalized), Abraham tried to use it as leverage against his supposed new ally, Abimelech. Way to make new friends, Abraham.
Of course none of this should be particularly surprising. Scheming ran in Abraham’s family. Let’s quick grab the line of Abraham’s brother Nahor since we’ll need to remember the names later:
Some time later Abraham was told, “Milcah is also a mother; she has borne sons to your brother Nahor: Uz the firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel (the father of Aram), Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.” Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milcah bore these eight sons to Abraham’s brother Nahor (Genesis 22:20-23).
Don’t worry; there won’t be a test on this. Just remember that Nahor was Abraham’s brother and his granddaughter was Rebekah. Now, when Abraham was getting older and it was time for his son Isaac to marry, he sent for Rebekeh, as she was within the family and therefore not a heathen foreigner. Everything had gone smoothly, Rebekah was found by Abraham’s servant and everyone agreed to the marriage. However, as they were leaving, Rebekah’s family stepped in,
But her brother and her mother replied, “Let the girl remain with us ten days or so; then you may go.”
But he said to them, “Do not detain me, now that the Lord has granted success to my journey. Send me on my way so I may go to my master.
Then they said, “Let’s call the girl and ask her about it.” So they called Rebekah and asked her, “Will you go with this man?”
“I will go,” she said (Genesis 24:55-58).
After agreeing to the marriage and sending off of Rebekah, her family (namely her mother and brother) tried to stop things up. Why? Well, Genesis 24:53 notes, “Then the servant brought out gold and silver jewelry and articles of clothing and gave them to Rebekah; he also gave costly gifts to her brother and her mother.” It stands to reason that the two were trying to get as much as they could out of the servant for Rebekah. This is further supported because in the next generation, Rebekah’s brother, Laban, pulled a similar stunt with Rebekah’s son Jacob. You see, Laban had two daughters, Leah and Rachel; Jacob agreed with him to marry Rachel, the younger and more beautiful of the two. So Laban made a deal that if Jacob worked seven years for him that Jacob would be allowed to marry Rachel. We read, “So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her” (Genesis 29:20). Everything was going smoothly, until Jacob woke up the morning after the wedding:
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?
Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work” (Genesis 29:25-27).
The Bible isn’t clear on if Laban is lying about the traditions of the times or how he was able to switch the brides but one thing was clear: Laban had just hoodwinked his own nephew into 14 years of service using his daughters as bait. It gets worse though, when Jacob and his family finally tried to leave after the 14 years were over, Laban tried to cut a deal. We read,
Laban answered Jacob, “The women are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks. All you see is mine. Yet what can I do today about these daughters of mine, or about the children they have borne? Come now, let’s make a covenant, you and I, and let it serve as a witness between us (Genesis 31:43-44).
Even Laban’s daughters were wheelers and dealers. Rachel actually sold the rights to Jacob for a night to her sister for some fruit:
During the wheat harvest, Reuben went into the fields and found some mandrake plants, which he brought to his mother Leah. Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.”
But she said to her, “Wasn’t it enough that you took away my husband? Will you take my son’s mandrakes too?”
“Very well,” Rachel said, “He can sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes” (Genesis 30:14-15).
Besides bartering over bedtime, Rachel also managed to be a bit of a thief. Genesis 31:30-32 starts as Laban is berating Jacob for leaving,
Now you have gone off because you longed to return to your father’s house. But why did you steal my gods?”
Jacob answered Laban, “I was afraid because I thought you would take your daughters away form me by force. But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live. In the presence of your relatives, see for yourself whether there is anything of yours here with me; and if so, take it.” Now Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen the gods.
This is especially problematic when you consider that it was through Jacob’s line that Judaism was born. Rachel was not only stealing, but she was also participating in the worship of (or at least collecting of) false gods. But she cranks it up a notch and proceeds to lie about it too,
Now Rachel had taken the household gods and put them inside her camel’s saddle and was sitting on them. Laban searched through everything in the tent but found nothing.
Rachel said to her father, “Don’t be angry, my lord, that I cannot stand up in your presence; I’m having my period.” So he searched but could not find the household gods (Genesis 31:34-35).
This was the family that Abraham, the father of faith was coming out of. Maybe it’s not so surprising that he had a bit of trickery in his blood.
Because Abraham never really dealt with his own history of deceitfulness (or maybe half-deceitfulness) it managed to manifest itself in his decedents. In fact, his son Isaac also tried to trick Abimelech into thinking that he wasn’t married. We can read about this in Genesis 26:6-8,
So Isaac stayed in Gerar.
When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” because he was afraid to say, “She is my wife.” He thought, “The men of this place might kill me on account of Rebekah, because she is beautiful.” When Isaac had been there a long time, Abimelech king of the Philistines looked down from the window and saw Isaac caressing his wife Rebekah.
This ended about how you’d expect. Abimelech was none too pleased. We read in Genesis 26:10, “Then Abimelech said, ‘What is this you have done to us? One of the men might well have slept with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.’” I think I would have added, “What is wrong with your family?!” Anyway, Abimelech had decided that he had enough of this sort of behavior and asked Isaac to leave. We read in Genesis 26:16, “Then Abimelech said to Isaac, ‘Move away from us, you have become too powerful for us.’” But the family line continued and Jacob wasn’t any more of an honest person that the rest of his clan. First he cheated his brother out of his inheritance,
Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom.)
Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”
“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?”
But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob (Genesis 25:29-33).
After that, he stole his brother’s blessing too. Though, to be fair, he was encouraged to do so by his mother (Laban’s sister). We read as the plot begins,
Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, Rebekah said to her son Jacob, “Look, I overheard your father say to your brother Esau, ‘Bring me some game and prepare me some tasty food to eat, so that I may give you my blessing in the presence of the Lord before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies (Genesis 27:5-10).
This is one morally ambiguous family. Anyway, Jacob brought the food and put goat fir on his arms so that he was hairy like his brother. Oh, and just for good measure he wore some of Esau’s clothes to get the smell right too. Isaac’s eyes were failing so it’d be hard for him to tell the difference between the two. This is why we can read,
Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he blessed him (Genesis 27:22-23).
Jacob was not innocent in any of this and due to the abuse he had rendered onto his brother, he later tried to use his family as a human shield before they met again in fear that Esau might kill him; but that is neither here nor there today. It wasn’t done with Jacob though either. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, also wasn’t as straight as you’d think. Now, like Abraham, Joseph is a frequent sermon topic due to his ability to trust the Lord through the hard times and receive a reward for it afterward. However, what is usually not covered in the sermons is that Joseph enslaved an entire nation. During the great famine of his day, Joseph was in charge of all the food for Egypt and the surrounding area. He had advised Pharaoh to save up for this time during seven years of bounty. However, the government-supplied food that Joseph kept watch over wasn’t free to the people. History tells us,
There was no food, however, in the whole region because the famine was severe; both Egypt and Canaan wasted away because of the famine. Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and Canaan in payment for the grain they were buying, and he brought it to Pharaoh’s palace. When the money of the people of Egypt and Canaan was gone, all Egypt came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? Our money is used up.”
“Then bring your livestock,” said Joseph. “I will sell you food in exchange for your livestock, since your money is gone” (Genesis 47:13-16).
But the prices must have been high, because even after draining the Egyptians of all their money and animals, they were still in need of food. The story continues,
When that year was over, they came to him the following year and said, “We cannot hide from our lord the fact that since our money is gone and our livestock belongs to you, there is nothing left for our lord except our bodies and our land. Why should we perish before your eyes- we and our land as well? Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be in bondage to Pharaoh. Give us seed so that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become desolate” (Genesis 47:18-19).
And so Joseph, the Prime Minister of Egypt, reduced the entire nation under his care to serfdom. Such were the exploits of Abraham’s descendants.
But Abraham and his family didn’t just act this way towards other people. Oh no. Even while trying to do something good, Abraham tried to cut a deal with God. The Lord had decided to wipe Sodom and Gomorrah off the map, due to it being a wicked place. However, Sodom is where Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lived. Therefore, Abraham decided to try to use the Lord’s own goodness against him. We read,
The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:22-25)
Yes, Abraham tried to shame the Lord into sparing his nephew. But God, in his kindness relented to Abraham,
The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city because of five people?”
“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:26-28).
Since he had been successful the first time, Abraham decided to turn this into a negotiation. Eventually, he got the Lord down to 10. Scripture records,
Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”
He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it” (Genesis 18:32).
You can say a lot about Abraham, but one thing is for sure: he really knew how to cut a deal. Abraham had no scruples about trying to guilt God into doing what he wanted because that’s the kind of guy he was and it was the sort of mindset that ran through his whole family.
Alright, so what’s the point of all this? Abraham had problems (actually, his whole family did) and those problem weren’t even resolved in his time on earth. But the Lord looked past his sins and his family’s sins and blessed Abraham because Abraham trusted in God. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). Abraham trusted in the Lord and believed everything that God told him. We’re told, “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” (Hebrews 11:8). He went where the Lord told him and kept his heart open so that God could speak to him about such things. And although he felt confident in trying to negotiate with the Lord or act strangely around others, Abraham completely trusted God. For it is written,
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Hebrews 11:17-18).
Can you imagine the faith it took for Abraham to be willing to give up the very thing God had promised him? What it comes down to is this: you will make mistakes. You will mess up, you will sin, you will fall into old habits, you will at times be no different than those who came before you; but our Lord Jesus understands. This is why Paul writes to us,
This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24).
The Lord is willing to forgive us through Christ’s atoning death for our sins, even after we mess up again and again. For Scripture says of Jesus, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). Jesus only died once, but in that death, he took away all sins once and for all for all who come to him for forgiveness. Abraham wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t a bastion of clean living, but it was not through his actions, but his faith and trust in God that he was lifted up by the Lord. Paul explains,
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about- but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:1-3).
Trust in Jesus. Even if you’re not perfect or you come from a messed up family, your faith will be credited to you as righteousness just like the Lord did for Abraham.