Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Genesis 17:17-18

Genesis 17:17-18: Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!”

Can you believe it? Abraham had just lived twenty-four years experiencing the hand of God since God spoke to him, in Genesis 12, and told him to go to the land which God would show him and that He would make him a great nation and bless him. God took care of Him during a famine. He saw God at work in Egypt when Pharaoh thought Sarai was his sister due to a lie he and she contrived. God had made Abram rich in livestock, silver, and gold. He saw God work out the disputes between Lot and himself. When Lot was taken captive by the enemy, he saw God use him to rescue his nephew and at the same time receive great honor and blessings from others. God saw him through the difficulties between Sarai and Hagar. And earlier in this chapter God reestablishes His covenant with Abram and gives him a new name. Yet, Abraham falls flat on his face, not in worship, but in laughter.

And rather than speaking back to the Lord, scripture says he said what he did “in his heart”. Did he, or do we for that matter, think that God has no access to what we think or determine to do, believe, or feel, in our hearts? If so, he, and we, are both mistaken. Abraham’s uttering to himself, “Will a child be born to a hundred year old man? And can a ninety year old woman even bear one?” may, at face value, appear like two simple questions. But for the believer in the Almighty God as Abraham was, they amount to sheer unbelief in God’s ability to deliver what He promises. His questions remind us of the serpent’s mutterings to Eve when he said, in Genesis 3 “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” And then later, “You surely shall not die!”

Once again, here is man considering God’s words in his own limited humanity. And perhaps we can identify with him, because after all, from a human perspective, he is right. One hundred year old couples do not have children, even in those days. We approach much of life in this way when it comes to spiritual matters or to the mysteries of God. Our beliefs are often limited to our experiences and to what we know to be true. Yet what God calls on us to do is to first deal with our belief in Him. Once we do that, then all else that He says must be relied upon. William Wilberforce in his book Real Christianity goes to great lengths to explain that basic requirement of the real Christian to take God at His word, or else doubt his own faith in such an Entity. Why would anyone want a God that he or she cannot trust?

With those thoughts of doubt in his mind, armed, albeit inappropriately, with what he considered to be the obvious answers to his private questions, Abraham then somehow musters up the ability to say to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” Now what exactly does that mean? I believe it can mean one of two things. First, considering how Abraham reacted to God’s statement about another child of his coming from Sarah, we could believe that this statement is his plea to God to set aside His intention and simply let Hagar’s son Ishmael be the very heir through which the covenant will come. That is, he is imploring God to find favor with Ishmael over any other potential heir that Abraham does not believe is even naturally possible. Alternatively, although I believe less probable given the flow of the content, Abraham may have accepted the fact that God will provide another heir and he is simply asking God not to forget Ishmael and to somehow bless him as well. Like a true father, Abraham still loves the son he had outside of God’s intention for his life.

At this point God had every right to become angry with Abraham and even to withdraw His promise to him. But does He? In the next passage, we find out.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Genesis 17:15-16

Genesis 17:15-16: Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come from her.”

When God makes a promise to the head of the household, He does not forget about that man’s family. Sarai, Abraham’s wife, was included in the covenant and indeed a very integral part of it. But first, as Abraham had to leave his old name of Abram behind, Sarai too would get a new name. And Abraham was charged to call her Sarah, the name given to Him for her by God.

We do not know much about these names, especially the former. The dictionaries that have attempted to define them seem to agree that Sarai can be translated as “princess” while Sarah means “noblewoman”. Perhaps those are fitting translations for Abraham’s wife, as they may be for any female. In my family, my fiancée was indeed my princess – I did all I could for her (and she for her prince). As my new bride, she continued to enjoy that extra or focused attention and special care that all brides deserve throughout their entire married life. But in reality, with the purchase of a home, the arrival of children, the aging of our parents, and any extra responsibilities that one’s career may through our way, rare is the spouse that can maintain such constant and more importantly, readily evident, adoration for their partner. My ‘princess’ indeed became a ‘noblewoman’ making way for two new ‘princesses’ in our family as God blessed us with two beautiful daughters first and then later our ‘prince’. What the writers of songs in the sixties called “young love” turned into deep devotion, true affection, and a strong appreciation of one partner’s unrelenting commitment to the other and to the family as a whole.

The latter part of this passage may however have more to say about the meaning of Sarah then the dictionaries may suggest. God goes on to say He will bless Sarah and give to Abraham a son by her. Those words ‘by her’ are interesting and possibly a reference to Abraham agreeing to Sarai’s efforts to procure him a son by way of Hagar. It seems as if God is saying to Abraham, “don’t make a mistake again, your son will come by her, not any other woman.” God forgives our mistakes, but keeps reminding us that the right way to pursue things in our lives is by His methods, not ours.

Then God says again, “Then I will bless her.” It is not clear to the layman whether this is intended to imply the beginning of Sarah’s blessing, or just a continuance of it as in the very prior sentence God has already indicated He will bless her with a son. Perhaps the first reference is to the blessing that results in a pregnancy – the honor of a woman to take a child. In the latter sentence, the blessing may be one for Sarah herself. With this blessing God says, “ . . . she shall be a mother of nations.” And furthermore, that “kings of people” – that is, those that rule these nations, will come from her. What an honor. What a blessing indeed.

It is this blessing that I believe is somehow connected to the real meaning of Sarah, just as Abraham meant father of many nations, so to Sarah was intended to imply mother of many nations. Father Abraham would ultimately have the joy of seeing God’s promise to him come about through his very own and beloved wife, Mother Sarah. What a privilege it is for those that are in the Lord’s service and are married, to be able to share somehow in that ministry together. That is what God gave Abraham and Sarah. That is what He had intended for Adam and Eve from the start. That is what He intends for you and me that are married today.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Genesis 17:9-14

Genesis 17:9-14: God said further to Abraham, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And every male among you who is eight days old shall be circumcised throughout your generations, a servant who is born in the house or who is bought with money from any foreigner, who is not of your descendants. A servant who is born in your house or who is bought with your money shall surely be circumcised; thus shall My covenant be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.”

It is after He has reassured Abraham of His covenant with him that God goes on to show Abraham what his part will be. Interestingly, God does not ask Abraham to undertake any action that will directly help bring about the promised outcome of the covenant. Abraham’s role and the role of all those that come after him is one of simply continued
faith and belief in the covenant’s promise. And that faith and belief is to be evidenced by each male being circumcised. God Himself says that will be “the sign” of the covenant. The same is true for believers today. God delivers His promises – our part is first and foremost simply to have faith demonstrated in various ways that are pleasing to God and then to follow His instructions and guidance in our lives. But our part is nothing that will directly bring about our salvation.

And God does go on to give us instructions. In Abraham’s case, He instructed Abraham that the circumcision ceremony would take place on the eighth day of life for newborns. And furthermore, God instructs that not only Abraham’s descendants are to have this operation performed on them, but also any servant that is born in their homes or any adult servant who has been bought by Abraham or his descendants. Circumcision then became that part of the sign of the covenant that is man’s responsibility in this case. There are promises or covenants that God has made with all His children and we are required to uphold the corresponding requirements that God outlines in conjunction with each. For example, later in Scripture we will hear God saying, “If My people…do so and so…then I will…do this.”

In addition, God, in speaking to you or me through other parts of Scripture, through other Christians from whom we seek help, or through our conversations with Him in prayer, may communicate a promise unique to us and along with it the role that we need to play in its fruition. God grant each of us the wisdom to fulfill our part with faith and patience. Abraham’s descendants had to do it with a sign in their flesh – a sign that because of its nature was private, rather than public. Our covenants are between God and us. What the world sees is the outcome of the covenant – living life as a child of His.

In this section of scripture God also warns Abraham about any male who will not be circumcised. That male will be cut off from the family because he would have broken God’s covenant. What God offers is clearly a covenant for all of Abraham’s descendants. Therein lies the evidence of His universal love (to Abraham’s seed in this case, without exception). On the receiving end, however, individually man may choose to reject the covenant by not fulfilling his own part. Therein lies evidence of God’s justice. The same is true of salvation today.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Genesis 17:3-8

Genesis 17:3-8: And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Abram surely had not forgotten how he tried to take matters into his hands, not trusting God to deliver on His promise for an heir. That God would still talk with him in the way He did was beyond anything that he would have expected. Sometimes we are like that. I know from personal experience, that when I do what I should not, I don’t expect God to be as forgiving as He always is. I feel I’ve blown my relationship with Him forever if not for a long time. Yet, I forget that while I may disappoint God, as His child, He still has a covenant with me. He still is my Father and I am His son. So Abram falls on his face before God in total worship, respect, and submission. And His loving Father continues to talk with him and to assure him again of His love and His plans for his life.

God basically tells him, “Listen, I made a deal with you, and I intend to keep it. No matter what you’ve done. I believe this agreement can still be accomplished. It’s not too late.” Abram may have given up on himself and perhaps God, but God never gave up on Himself or Abram. Like the ultimate loving Father that He is, God never gives up on His children. No matter what you or I have done. If we’re willing to be led by Him, there is still hope for a future that you could never have dreamed of.

God tells Abram “you will be the father of many nations.” There’s no doubt about it – “you will be.” It was a certainty. Because God exists, then anything He says will happen can in fact be counted on. It’s as simple as that. Our fallen humanity and our lack of faith get in our way of readily accepting that kind of thinking. All of God’s promises to His children will be, or have been, fulfilled. In His way and manner. That is a reality, but we need also to make it a state of mind and way of life.

Now God does a most interesting thing next. He modifies Abram’s name. Abram, which meant exalted father, was already a pretty good name. So why vary it? I think it is important to note that God did not totally change Abram’s name, although He could have and in fact, in the New Testament we read of Christ changing the name of one of His disciples. God does not always want us to forget our past and the various stages He has brought us through. Here, God just wants to expand Abram’s name to include His covenant with him – that is, to give him a name that also means “father of many nations”.

It is as if God was saying, “Abram, you had a little trouble remembering my covenant with you. So let me arrange that this will not happen again. Every time you hear someone calling you, you’ll remember my promise, and it will come to pass.” And you know that name He gave Abram that day also serves to remind us of God’s covenant with him, ensuring that our views do not go counter to that promise even today. What an amazing God. He so much wants us to succeed and to be happy. What has God had to do in your life to help you remember His promises? For me, it was something as simple as having two young girls and a little boy start calling me ‘dad’. God had kept His promises of giving my wife and I children and now He wanted me to keep mine of being a loving dad just like Him.

Then God goes on to describe in greater detail what the impact of that revised name will be. Abraham would become the father or originator of many nations and be extremely fruitful with respect to generations of people coming after him. God promises his people will be established into nations. It is of interest here to note that God promised more than one nation being established from Abraham’s seed, but He did not promise kingdoms. God would be their king. This idea is further supported when one studies the next phrase, “and kings shall come forth from you”. Interestingly, it does not say “and I will allow kings to come forth from you” but rather just that they will. The significance of that distinction becomes clearer as the Old Testament unfolds.

The Lord then reiterates that He will establish His covenant not only with Abraham but also with Abraham’s descendents. There will be no expiration date – it’s an everlasting covenant. And here’s the first bonus – the covenant includes the fact that He will be God to Abraham and his descendants forever. Not only will Abraham be the father of many nations, but God will also be his God and the God of his children forever. There is nothing that Abraham’s people can do that will change that. They may disappoint God but He will be their God forever. We need to remember that as we deal with Israel today.

And then comes bonus number two – God will give to Abraham and his descendents all the lands on which they journey including all of Canaan. And he’ll give it to them as “an everlasting possession” – that’s forever. The land is not something they will trade or lose in a war. As I pen these words on April 2, 2008, I am struck by the fact that in this verse written thousands of years ago we have the very basis of what this world’s greatest strife is all about today – the ongoing situation between Israel and Palestine, a situation that has somehow managed to engage the entire world on one side or another. God will not have His covenant broken by anyone – be it Jew, Palestinian, American, or any other world power that may attempt to resolve this issue in a way contrary to this verse.

The God of Abraham many thousands of years ago is the same God of Abraham’s descendents today. May we be encouraged by that fact.

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