The Better Sacrifice

I don’t often make our church’s midweek Bible study, due to conflicts between the time it starts and the time I get home from work.

I did last week, though, entering midway into a study of one of my favourite sections of the Bible: the early chapters of Genesis.

I’d missed the studies on the first three chapters covering the Creation and Fall, and jumped right in with the story of Cain and Abel.

I’m not going to comment right now on the actual historicity or not of this section of primeval history. Whether and how it should be harmonised with what most scientists tell us about Darwin’s theories and all the palaeontological discoveries we’ve made is a separate question, but in a sense, if you don’t treat these chapters as “real” in some sense, you’re going to miss the point of most of the rest of the Bible.

In short, God might have used evolution to create the world and even progressively stamped the Divine image onto increasingly manlike beings, but the theology of salvation and the very underpinnings of the Good News require a Fall of some sort from an original state of grace, otherwise they don’t entirely make sense. The Bible doesn’t tell us that humanity’s problem is that we’re ignorant of the right thing to do or that we need someone to show us the way; it tells us that knowing what is right, we do not do it.

For the Bible to make sense, the first few chapters of Genesis have to be true on at least a spiritual and theological level. Whether they are also true in the sense of being an accurate historical description of real events is a separate question.

But for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to treat it as a factual account, even if there are some questions about precisely what genre these passages belong in.

The account of Cain and Abel begins some time after the exile from Eden, when Adam and Eve have started having children. The way Cain’s naming is written, Cain might have been their firstborn, but there’s nothing specifically written either way. Eve names him “Gotten”, saying “With the help of YHWH I have gotten (or brought forth) a man”. As an interesting aside, I find it fascinating that this is the first name-giving by someone other than Adam. Adam was the one given the job of naming all the animals in chapter 2, and Adam names Eve, both as to her kind (“ishah”, “woman”; “taken out of ish, man”) and personally (“Eve”, “Breath”, “Life-giver”). Up until this point, it’s been Adam that has told the rest of Creation what it is. Now the focus shifts, and it’s the one Adam calls Lifegiver that gives the names to the next generation.

Many traditions have portrayed Abel as Cain’s younger twin, but all the Bible says is that he was born “afterwards”. There could have been years between them for all we actually know.

Anyway, there’s time in between the notification of their birth (important in the light of the Divine command to “go forth and multiply”) and the rest of this account for them to grow up and become at least young men, and given how much fun God designed sex to be, I don’t expect Adam and Eve were hanging about on the going forth and multiplying. This will become important later, but undoubtedly Cain and Abel had numerous siblings; even without multiple births a pregnancy a year over 100 years of life (Seth, Abel’s “replacement”, was born when Adam was 130) gives 50 offspring from Adam and Eve alone, and those children can potentially start having their own kids at 15-20. This is no Western-style nuclear family with only the named individuals in it.

Simply put, we aren’t told how many years elapsed between Cain and Abel’s birth and the first murder, but it was enough for Cain to grow up and become a farmer and Abel to grow up and become a shepherd.

This is the central tension of almost every preindustrial agricultural society there’s ever been, encapsulated right here. Growers of seed and keepers of livestock. I hesitate to say that this is where all the tension comes from, but it’s an interesting observation that Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd, not the Good Farmer.

There’s an awful lot in this passage that isn’t said, including the reasons why Cain’s offering was rejected by God, but so long as we keep in mind that we are speculating, it’s perfectly ok to read between the lines a little.

“In the fullness of time,” the Bible says, Cain brought some of the produce of the ground as an offering. This may just mean that in the course of things once the seed was ripe and the harvest was in, but the Bible does often use this phraseology for Divinely-ordained times, appointed times for an aspect of His unfolding rescue plan for humanity. And if that is the intended sense, it might imply a time that God had set for them to bring an offering.

The priestly sacrificial system and Law wasn’t formally codified until Mount Sinai, but this isn’t the only foreshadowing of aspects of the Law’s requirements. Noah had to be able to differentiate clean and unclean animals somehow so he would know how many to take into the ark, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob built altars and made sacrifices, and even God Himself had to kill something to provide the “garments of skins” with which He covered Adam and Eve.

It doesn’t especially matter whether this offering was a spontaneous gift or a commanded requirement, but the difference between Cain and Abel goes deeper than what they offered.

If this is a commanded sin-offering, God had established the pattern that something has to die for your sins to be covered, but the Sinaitic Covenant prescribed other kinds of offering than sin-offerings alone. The short answer is that we don’t know.

However, the language used in each case shows an important difference in attitude between the two brothers. Cain brought “some of the fruits of the earth”; the tone suggests that he didn’t take much time or care over its selection. At best, this reveals a jobbing, good-enough attitude which is going to fulfil the letter of what’s required but will do no more. At worst, it’s a surly passive-aggressive resistance to doing what God has asked for, possibly a heart greedy for “his” possessions that “he” had produced from the ground, perhaps an ugly mistrust of God’s goodness, care and provision.

Abel, by contrast, brings “fat portions from the firstborn of his flocks”, the best of the best. If his offering is a token of the attitude of his heart, Abel is a man whose relationship with God is of the highest importance. Who gives to God first, trusting Him to meet his needs.

Cain’s offering looks like the response of a man who thinks he’s really giving something to God. Here, Lord, have some of this grain that I made grow out of my own land with my own two hands. It may be significant in more ways than one that his name is Gotten. I did it; it’s my stuff; I’m doing God a favour by letting Him have some of what I earned. Cain, we might say, is the original self-made man.

Abel, on the other hand, gives like someone who knows that everything is the Lord’s anyway. He’s unstinting, his is a relationship of trust in God’s ability and willingness to take care of him. The firstborn of his flocks, and fat portions of it – the best part, in a time before the current Western obesity epidemic – coming before YHWH with blood on his hands because he knows he doesn’t have any right on his own merit.

And now we’re foreshadowing Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. The one came to God proudly listing off all the things he’d done to earn the favour of the Almighty, the other not even looking up to heaven, pleading for mercy because he’s a sinner.

And just like in Christ’s parable, it’s the man with blood on his hands that is looked on with favour. The one who trusts not in what he can do or bring, but in God’s merciful character.

And Cain gets mad.

Offended that God wouldn’t favour the offering that he’d worked so hard to produce, he reveals the legalistic religiousity of his mindset. Obviously God ought to be pleased, right? He said to bring an offering, and I jolly well brought an offering. I’ve done what He said; I deserve to merit His favour, right?

Sorry, Cain, but grace doesn’t work that way. We’re all flawed, imperfect, ungodly, sinful. We all fall short, and not one of us has anything to offer of our own. God’s favour is unmerited, otherwise grace is no longer grace. It’s gratis, free, not to be earned. God cannot be bought off and will not accept the fruits of the red earth (“Adamah”, ie Adam, that is, man). Truly, “nothing in my hand I bring,” as the old hymn puts it.

And so God lovingly challenges Cain. “Why is your face downcast? If you do well, won’t you also be accepted? But if you choose not to do well, sin is crouching at your door like a demon. It wants to possess you, but you don’t have to give in to it. You must be its master, not be mastered by it.”

Cain, you know I’m not interested in the offering for its own sake. It’s you that I want, not your stuff. Do well, offer to Me what bears My image, and you will be accepted with love and mercy. The offering’s not because I need it, but because I desire relationship with you, and that’s been broken by the sin that came into My world when your father Adam chose to disobey. Something has to die to cover that sin, Cain, and Abel understands this. Come back, Cain. It’s not too late; you don’t have to walk any further down this dark path.

And Cain hardens his heart.

This often seems to be the response of the religiously legalistic when confronted with the righteousness of faith. In a foreshadowing of every act of persecution and religious violence from the Pharisees to the Taliban, via the Crusades and Stalin’s purges, Cain decides that his righteous brother is the problem, and no more brother = no more problem.

And even after he commits the first murder, still God comes after him. Like His incarnate Son, God seems to like asking leading questions; the faux-innocent “Where is your brother Abel?” allows Cain a moment to decide whether he’s going to face up to what he’s done or try to wriggle out of it.

Adam and Eve pointed the finger of blame everywhere but at themselves, but at least they did not contest what they had done. Cain goes one worse. He lies, trying to pretend that not only did he not do it, but that he’s not even sure what’s been done.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” I’ve got enough to do being responsible for me and my righteousness, now you think I can be responsible for my brother too? He’s an adult, let him be responsible for himself.

But YHWH pierces this self-serving smokescreen, saying “What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground!” I know what you did; I’m not asking because I don’t know, I’m asking to try and help you.

Cain fails even where Adam does seem to succeed. Adam accepts his punishment, watches meekly while God kills something to cover the nakedness of his sin. Cain’s still trying to argue with God, like he knows better than the Omniscient One. “You’re driving me away from my livelihood, I’m going to be a restless vagabond, and anyone who finds me is going to feel no compunction about killing me!”

And so once again, the Lord in His patience and mercy reaches out, putting a mark on Cain so that no-one would kill him out of hand, lest they suffer the sevenfold vengeance God decrees. The form this took is not clear, but the consequence is. God is even concerned not to let anyone else take Cain’s life, just in case he should repent later.

And yet, we see that even then, Cain’s still trying to squirm out of the consequences of his sin. God told him he would be a homeless wanderer on the earth, but not four verses later we read that Cain is building a city named after his son Enoch.

Now, various people have famously fluffed the answer to “where did Cain’s wife come from?”, because “he married his sister” is incest in our modern world and we don’t like the implications.

But this is one of those times at which it only makes sense if you consider all the implications of an act of special creation.

In the beginning, God did not create mankind with a whole host of genetic defects. This is why incest is so categorically a bad idea; it’s one of those commandmemts that has a solid biological basis. Having children with a close relative is so terrible because it doubles the chances of all of the various accumulated genetic weaknesses and defects producing something really catastrophic.

Biologists call this “genetic load”, and it’s one of the subtle problems caused by any population bottleneck.

But Adam and Eve had no genetic load. In all likelihood, incest didn’t become an issue until the Israelites were in Egypt, and the accumulated damage of centuries upon centuries of harsh solar radiation, chemical damage and just general mutational effects was sufficient to make it deadly.

So yes, Cain, and Seth, and their brothers and sisters and offspring, married close family. It couldn’t be any other way, and it wasn’t the problem many people seem to think it was.

Cain’s descendents seem to have become worse and worse, until Lamech, seventh from Cain, becomes the first polygamist and is so ruled by the idea of revenge that he’s prepared to kill in response to being struck.

And yet there’s hope. “In the fullness of time” Eve bears another son, which she understands as being a sort of replacement for Abel, who was killed. His name is Seth, which means “Granted”, or “Given”.

And that right there says it all, really. The offspring of Cain are the lineage of Gotten, of I-did-it, of humanistic pride and self-righteousness and religious legalism. Seth’s line are the children of Granted, of He-did-it, of the righteousness which is a gift of God and is by faith.


Evolving Perspectives

I was a creationist in Britain, where it’s hard. Where disbelief in biological evolution is considered the same as disbelief that the earth is a globe. Where with only a few exceptions, Christians tend to say that God created the world but He probably used evolution to do it. Where believing in a literal six-day creation is considered as fundamentalist and unbalanced at the Taliban and Westboro Baptist Church.

In that kind of a milieu, you’d better have good reasons for doubting the prevailing orthodoxy, and be prepared to back them with hard science.

Worse, my degree is in biology. The question was not “how can you call yourself a Christian and believe in evolution?”, but “how can you call yourself a scientist and not believe in evolution?”

However, I consider my creationism to be more or less scientifically-based. There was no conscious decision that I had to accept that the Biblical creation account was historically and literally factual. I simply got to the point where evolutionary theory was asking me to accept so many one-in-a-million chances and improbabilities in the origins of life that it finally just became less improbable to postulate a single act of special creation.

Interestingly enough, one of the main spurs toward this intellectual position was my reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dawkins, he’s one of my country’s leading biological scientists and one of my country’s leading proponents of atheism. He makes a logical case for evolution underpinning atheism, or rather, undermining faith in God, but his willingness to accept biological millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance after millions-to-one chance in his quest to bolster the idea that God wasn’t needed as an explanation just got to the point where it crossed my threshold of disbelief. This was too much improbability.

I was initially quite a reluctant creationist. As a dinosaur-loving child, I’d somehow absorbed the idea that believing in an act of special creation meant you had to discount all of palaeontology as a lie, that there were no dinosaurs (the fossils were probably put there by God to fool scientists or something), and that the world has always been pretty much like it is today in terms of species range. Creationism wasn’t scientific; it was the product of a mind in retreat; a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately trying to make new gaps. A deliberate step away from knowledge. I didn’t initially want very much to do with it, but I found that evolution wasn’t believable any more.

Then I encountered the Creation Science movement. It’s very fringe in the UK; you almost have to go looking for it. But at least here was a way that I could reconcile my scientific disbelief in evolutionary theory with still being a scientist. There might be some evidence that the long ages required by evolutionary theory need not necessarily have been, or that, as the Intelligent Design scientists maintain, biological and physical systems show the mark of being the work of an organising Intelligence. As a result of finding these guys (in the Creation Science movement), I got quite into it. I even went to a talk given by Ken Ham (an Australian who founded Answers in Genesis and is one of the movement’s leading lights). I’d bend people’s ears about it at the slightest excuse.

Being a vocal creationist in Britain, it’s you, alone, against the world. Even those who share your faith in Christ probably aren’t going to agree with you on this one, but will instead look at you suspiciously as if you’re some sort of lunatic or dangerous fanatic.

So you might think that moving to the United States, where in Christian circles the idea of creationism is practically mainstream, I’d be rejoicing in the company of like minds.

Not so much.

I’m actually uncomfortable with most of US Christian creationism. It often seems way too close to how I initially characterised the idea of creationism – a rejection of science, a “God of the gaps” mentality desperately seeking more gaps. I don’t like this. Really don’t like it.

The “God of the gaps” idea is that “we need God in order to explain those questions science can’t answer”. This, to my mind, is backwards. For me, science isn’t an alternative to belief in God but a result of it. I can do science because the universe is the rational creation of an intelligent Mind, not a chaotic result of random processes. Science is “thinking God’s thoughts after Him”; the whole enterprise has theistic underpinnings. Because we believe that the universe is a real, good creation of a rational God, subject to His rules, we can study the world. We can do experiments, because we are studying a real, good creation rather than trespassing on the domain of some malicious little sprite or trying to study something fundamentally illusory. We can make useful observations, because the universe is ordered, not a random product of blind forces. We can do science. It’s a result of Christian worldview.

I don’t believe in a God of the gaps; I believe in a God of science who is a Revealer of mysteries. We can find things out and make discoveries because there is a God, not in spite of there being a God. God’s domain does not shrink with every scientific advance; instead, human knowledge inches closer to God’s perfect Knowledge. All truth is God’s truth, even if it doesn’t look that way at first.

I sympathise with the plight of the Intelligent Design folks, recognising my own journey in theirs. They’ve bravely come to the point where the evidence of some kind of designing Intelligence in the biological and physical world is so strong that they’ve had to doubt the evolutionary orthodoxy that it all happens due to random processes. They, like me, have come to the realisation that a designed universe implies a Designer, through their science, not in rejection of it. And then their theories are apparently hijacked by a load of science-rejecting ideologues (as they see it) and used to justify their rejection of science and what scientists tell them, whether that’s evolution or climate change or anything else.

Maybe I’m being a “creation snob”. Not everyone has a science background or really grasps the biology. Is it really fair to look down on fellow-believers just because they aren’t scientists?

Well, no, it’s not fair. I hope I can cope with the idea that not everyone’s a scientist, but we Christians have no excuse for being rejectors of science either, and I find way too much of that in a lot of US Christianity.

I still find the idea that the omnipotent God whose existence I acknowledge could have created the world in six literal days to require no great stretch of faith or imagination. I still find the level of improbability which is necessarily part and parcel of atheistic evolution to be frankly beyond my personal credulity. But equally, God could have chosen to work through the process of evolution, and the Biblical creation account could be as figurative as the Psalmist’s description of God having feathers, or as symbolic as Daniel’s description of four beasts. It doesn’t affect the Bible’s ultimate credibility to believe that Genesis 1-2 is something other than a historical record, any more than it damages belief in the Bible’s authority to recognise that the Psalms are poetry, not literal history, or that the book of Jeremiah contains both historical-narrative and prophetic genres.

For that matter, which Biblical creation account are we to accept as the literal and factual one? There are at least four (Genesis 1, Genesis 2, Job 38 and John 1), and they don’t agree in all of the details. For example, Genesis 1 states that animals were created before people, whereas Genesis 2 reverses that order. If this part of the Bible is to be understood as a literal description of events, how do we reconcile this discrepancy?

For me, it’s still simpler to believe in an act of special creation by an all-powerful God than in the same all-powerful God working through a long-winded process of “natural” selection, but I recognise that God could have done it that way. It’s not a big deal either way.

So I find myself caught in the middle. I can’t make myself really believe in evolution again, but I can’t stand the apparent rejection of science that appears to characterise your average US Christian creationist. Some of these people really do look like flat-earthers or like they believe in a Ptolemaic cosmos with all of its epicycles and the sun going round the earth. As far as I can tell, they think modern science is “atheistic” and they want no truck with atheism. Safer to reject science than faith. The Bible is all we need anyway. Just believe it and close your mind.

I don’t really want to be associated with that. It’s the opposite of the way I came to most of my beliefs, scientific or Christian, and it looks dangerously unthinking. We don’t have the luxury of closing our minds. We have to worship God with them.

Why are we so dogmatic about how we should interpret this passage of the Bible? We none of us were there, as God reminds Job. Making dogmatic statements about things we have not seen seems a little like the hubris we accuse evolutionists of. A little less dogmatism and a little more humility might do us all a world of good.

And as for the Bible being all we need, why do we believe the Bible anyway? We believe it because there is good evidence for its reliability. It’s been proven time and again to be historically credible when it talks about stuff we can hold it to account on, so we are on solid ground when we believe it on more unusual events like miracles. We trust it because we believe it’s true, and there’s good evidence to support the contention that it is. If the Bible is demonstrably unreliable in what it says, we shouldn’t be believing it, so how dare we say that “the Bible is all we need”? We don’t believe things “just” because the Bible says them and we’ve decided to believe the Bible in spite of what our reason and observation tell us, we believe the Bible because we know that when it talks about things we can prove and observe, like historical events and human nature, it has a really good track record of accuracy.

The Bible isn’t, in a very real sense, all we need. We first have to be convinced that the Bible is reliable, and for that we must use the tools of science: reason and observation. Anything else is a blind “believing something you know isn’t true” faith of the sort atheists accuse us of having.

I’m not trying to weaken anyone’s faith. But questions of origins are difficult ones involving epistemology (how can we know anything?), several of the sciences, Bible interpretation and matters of faith. No-one currently living on the earth was there at the time and saw it happen, and we don’t always interpret the book written by the One who was there with perfect accuracy, so we ought to be cautious about making sweeping statements about what really happened. Sometimes it’s ok to not know.

Abraham’s Trained Men

We never really think of Abraham as a warlord. He was the father of the nation of faith, so he must have been a man of peace, right?

Of course, reading his story this far removed temporally from the events in question, we often get the subconscious impression that it was more or less just Abraham and Sarah in most of their wanderings. We’re completely unused to the very extended families and massive households with large numbers of servants, hired hands, armed retainers and so on that a careful reading of Scripture makes clear Abraham’s was, so we tend to read our own very nuclear families onto the story without even thinking about it.

But it’s obvious from the details we read (and take in without playing out the implications) that Abraham’s household was pretty large, and that he was a powerful chieftain in his own right.

When Abraham and Lot separate, it’s because their households together are too many for the land to support. When he’s in Egypt, he gains large numbers of people as well as sheep and cattle. In his dealings with Abimelech, Abimelech is a lot more circumspect and careful around Abraham than Pharaoh, suggesting Abraham is either of equal or greater wealth and power than the kings of Gerar.

And when he rescues Lot from Kedorlaomer and Amraphel and the kings allied with them, he’s able to call out over three hundred trained warriors from his household troops.

As in the account of King David much later, the idea of a man of faith also being a warrior isn’t coming totally out of nowhere, but we never seem to think about it with Abraham.

I’m fascinated by this incident, and Abraham’s trained men, so I began to do some background reading. It gets more interesting the more you know.

Who were these “trained men”? How could three hundred men make the armies of six kings flee from them, so that they pursued them for several days’ journey?

We can’t precisely date the life of Abraham because there are very few external time references. “Pharaoh king of Egypt” isn’t much good for establishing a chronology, because “Pharaoh” is a title rather than a personal name. The same may be true for Abimelech, seeing as how not only Abraham but also Isaac and King David encounter a king of the Philistines “named” Abimelech. But this battle of six kings against five provides one of the few possible clues to date the whole Abrahamic period, and scholars argue back and forth as only scholars can over the identities of these rulers that the Bible names.

But we can say some things about the time period and the sort of warfare we’d expect to find.

Given that we know that the events of I Samuel take place against a backdrop of the very beginnings of the Iron Age (as evidenced by clues like the Philistines’ monopoly on ironworking shown in I Samuel 13:19, the events of Abraham’s life can be placed squarely in the height of the Bronze Age. Depending on your preferred date of the Exodus and how tight a Biblical chronology you accept (in other words, how much play is there in the Bible’s own reporting of numbers? When it says that the sojourn in Egypt was “four hundred years”, does it mean four hundred exactly, or “about four hundred”, just like we might say the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was “four hundred years ago” even though the exact number is 426 years, or even that it’s a purely symbolic 40 years (Scripturally meaning a period of trouble and testing) x 10 (symbolic of completion, being 1+2+3+4)?), the Abrahamic period could reasonably be anywhere from around 2500BC to around 1800BC.

This puts Abraham squarely in the great age of the chariot empires, and gives us an idea of the sort of battlefield technology we ought to be picturing.

If we think about it at all, we probably picture Abraham riding a camel, or at least, a horse. But archaeologists tell us that camels weren’t even domesticated until about 2500BC and saddled for riding only much later (which suggests that the reason the Midianites were so formidable in the time of Gideon might have been that they had camelry and the Israelites didn’t), and while horses were domesticated in about 3500BC, actual ridden cavalry didn’t happen until some time later. Archaeology points to chariots preceding ridden horses, at least in warfare. The horses of the time were too small to be ridden easily, and it took time to develop innovations like the bit and bridle, that let horses be controlled by a rider, and the framed saddle, which let a rider keep his seat more easily. Even after that, stirrups weren’t invented for several hundred years (about 500BC, if memory serves).

So then, Abraham in a chariot.

We tend to associate chariots with the great settled empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia rather than with nomads like Abraham, but archaeology points to the nomadic peoples, too, having chariots.

The nomads, in fact, often made better warriors than the settled peoples. Whereas settled farming used a lot of time and tended to produce a more timid, peasantlike people, the nomads’ daily life of watching the herds, fighting off wild animals and raiders, and perhaps engaging in a little raiding themselves, was already halfway toward warfare and cultivated the same skills and same watchful mindset. Nomads were generally feared by the settled peoples because they were dangerous, not merely because they were different.

Of course, settled communities of any size had bands of trained warriors supported by taxes on the peasant producers, but the difference was that among the nomads, every man was a warrior.

Abraham was living as a nomad, and had great numbers of sheep and cattle and donkeys. You don’t preserve wealth like this by leaving it unguarded, and Abraham was no fool. His people, and he himself, must have had to fight on occasion.

More than this, though, Abraham had 318 trained men. Over and above the levy of his herdsmen who would fight when necessary, he had 318 men whom the Scripture describes as “trained”. Trained implies they were more than herdsmen. Trained suggests they were purely warriors. Probably these would have been his charioteers, if I’m right in my assumption that he had them. At two men per chariot, that’s three hundred chariots, or two hundred, if these were the heavier, Hittite-style chariots with three-man crews.

This puts a different complexion on the forces Abraham had at his disposal. However, the opposition were no walkovers. Kedorlaomer, king of Elam (in the hills of south-western Persia) is their leader, and they include Amraphel king of Shinar (southern Mesopotamia) and others.

Linguists tell us that this is an Elamite compound word properly Kudur-Lagamar, but records from Elam are sketchy, and in all the records we have from Babylonia, there is no Amraphel. The Babylonians, along with other ancient people, did often deify their great kings. The pharaohs of Egypt famously ruled as god-kings, and much later several Roman emperors elevated themselves to godhood. If a certain well-known ancient Semitic-speaking Babylonian ruler had been deified in his lifetime, their name might have received the -El suffix as denoting a living god. And shorn of the -el ending, there’s really not that much to choose between Amrap(h) and (H)am(mu)rab(i). Not all scholars agree, of course, but linguitically speaking, it’s very possible.

Of course, Hammurabi’s annals don’t mention the events, but the proud and touchy rulers of the Bronze Age are unlikely to record their own defeats. But it provides a tantalising possibility for tying down the events of some of the earlier parts of Genesis.

We can’t say for sure. But it puts flesh on the incident. The kings of the valley of Sodom rebel against the Elamite and Mesopotamian rulers whom they had formerly been paying tribute to. In revenge, Kudur-Lagamar and Hammurabi gather together some of their subject kings and come down to the Jordan valley, plundering and despoiling. After a successful raid on Sodom, Abraham’s nephew Lot is among the plundered captives, and so Abraham decides to go and rescue him. He gathers together his three hundred elite fighting men and goes in pursuit.

We’re apt to read this through the lens of the Israelites’ later technological and military inferiority in the period of the Judges (Sisera’s 900 iron chariots, for example) or the relative strengths of King Hezekiah of Judah and Emperor Sennacherib of Assyria, but that actually doesn’t seem to be entirely what’s happening. The Bible’s never hesitant to make it known that the people of God were facing overwhelming force, but it does not do so here, which suggests, though far from conclusively, that the balance of power was more even. The armies of six kings including the notable Hammurabi do not run from rabbles of scruffy nomads that they themselves outnumber significantly. And if you look at the geography, Abraham’s forces had to chase them for several days before catching up to them and plundering the plunderers. The armies of the day were small enough that Abraham’s three hundred and eighteen trained men, together with however many other support troops he had, were a sizeable army.

So I suppose the lesson we should draw from all this is that using wisdom and reason to achieve what God is calling you to through the resources He has given is not incompatible with having a huge faith. It does not necessarily mean that you have little faith if you deploy your own God-given resources with your own God-given wisdom to achieve a righteous end. It just means that your faith is not being particularly tested right now.

But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

Speaking In Code

A friend commenting on Endless Genealogies on my personal Facebook account brought up the theory that the names in the Biblical genealogies have meaning beyond their function as names (this is true of almost all names) and that reading through the translated meanings produces interesting messages, and asked what I thought about it. (An example using the line from Adam to Noah can be found here).

On the one hand, it’s fascinating and, if true, very cool. On the other hand, I don’t know of a single respected mainstream Bible scholar who seems to take it seriously.

I’m personally more than a bit sceptical. Here is a fascinating idea, yet it is, by its very nature, a “secret code” kind of approach to interpreting the Bible, and that immediately puts me on guard.

The main criticism you find seems to be that at least some of the name derivations are a bit contrived or nonstandard. I’m wary of big, all-encompassing interpretive grids (this is my underlying problem with most standard Dispensationalist eschatology) for the very reason that you always seem to end up twisting the plain meaning of the text to match what your framework says it ought to be.

I’m also extremely wary of the whole “secret code” approach to the Bible. The first principle of hermeneutics is that if the plain sense of the text makes common sense, seek no other sense.

The idea that there are “secret codes” and “hidden wisdom” in the text of Scripture is a very cultic one, and specifically Gnostic. The Gnostics were a collection of secretive Christian heretics from the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD. They combined early Christian teaching with a mindset gleaned from the ancient mystery cults of Diana and Mithras. Their whole idea was that there were secret codes in the Bible that unlocked hidden knowledge, and it was through access to this knowledge that one was saved, not by the grace of God expressed in Jesus the Messiah (hence their being labeled as heretics). Because of this way of reading Scripture, a Bible text might “really” be saying something completely at odds with its plain meaning.

Needless to say, the Gnostics developed some pretty screwy doctrines, among them the material world was evil and that the Creator of this material world was a corrupt lower being and not the true and highest God. According to Gnostic understanding, it was the serpent in the Garden who was a representative of this God and stood opposed to the evil Creator. Thus, the whole basis of the Gospel is stood on its head and the serpent’s lie that enslaved us all becomes the truth that will set us free.

Now, I’m not saying that either this idea nor those who spread it are going that far. If you view it as an interesting piece of speculative interpretation in addition to the normal reading of the text, then fine. But my worry is that starting to read this sort of hidden meaning in Scriptural texts will kind of set up your mind to expect hidden meanings, and that’s a dangerous place to be in. Sooner or later when you start down that road you come to a place where you don’t even see the plain meaning of the Scripture because your mind is so weaned onto your interpretive grid that it completely governs what you see.

As an example, there’s a hypothetical story of a scientific expedition that went to make a comprehensive survey of all life in the oceans. To accomplish this, they trawled the ocean at all possible depths with a net, the holes of which measured exactly one inch by one inch. After sorting and analysing all the various creatures they caught, they published among their conclusions that No creature smaller than one inch by one inch lives in the ocean.

Your grid determines what you see.

By contrast, the goal of proper Bible interpretation is as much as possible to let the Scripture speak for itself. We study the culture of the times in order to try and move beyond the preconceptions of our own culture. We study the use of the Greek words in other sources than Scripture, to make sure that our understanding of the particular words and phrases is as accurate as possible. We try to let the Bible inform our theology rather than bending the Word of God to conform to our ideas. Because ultimately, even the theology of man is a construct.

This idea of secret Bible codes and hidden meanings seems disturbingly at odds with all that, even when the resulting interpretations look really cool and interesting, like here. It’s not the results that bother me, so much as the process by which you get there.

I confess to finding this genealogical protevangelion fascinating, but I’m more than a little nervous about the whole approach that produced it.

“Endless Genealogies”: The Lineages of Cain and Seth (Retro Week)

This week is “Retro Week” on this blog. I’m reposting selections from the archives. This one originally dates from 26th March:

Despite I Timothy chapter 1, I have to confess to an abiding fascination with the genealogical tables in the Bible. I realise, of course, that most Westerners aren’t with me on this; many people seem to come at them with an idea of “Hmm, long list of names. Little to no detail given about them. I’m not even sure how to pronounce most of them. Why is this even here in the Bible? Moving swiftly on…

While I can sort of understand this, I can’t really relate; I think dismissing them entirely is a mistake. Having said that, however, when people do say something about them it often provokes a “Huh?” response in me and leaves me wanting to quibble over their interpretation or its implications. Maybe this is why St. Paul advised us to avoid “myths and endless genealogies”. Little good can come from arguing over peripheral details.

It occurred to me, though, that it might be worthwhile to unpack one or two of these Biblical genealogies a little, hopefully without delving into the “myths” we are told to avoid. So let’s look at what are arguably the mother and father of all genealogical lists: the lines of Cain and Seth.

The line of Cain is a lot more bare bones than that of Seth. There are no ages given, and it extends only for seven generations from Adam. We’re told at the start that Cain built a city (this from the one God said would be “a restless wanderer on the earth” – more on this later) and named it after his son Enoch. Then the line picks up with Enoch’s son.

From Adam, then, we have:

  1. Adam

  2. Cain

  3. Enoch

  4. Irad

  5. Mehujael

  6. Methushael

  7. Lamech

Then we get some of the few details we are given in the passage. Lamech marries two women (the implication being that this is a new thing) and becomes the father of four named offspring: Jabal, of whom we are told that he was the father of “all who live in tents and keep flocks”, his brother Jubal, father of “all who play the harp and flute”, their half-brother Tubalcain, maker of “all kinds of tools of bronze and iron” and his sister Naamah.

We’re also told of Lamech’s pronouncement of vengeance “seventy-seven times”. Again, more on this later.

The lineage of Seth, by comparison, is more detailed. We are given ages for the patriarchs, and the line itself goes longer: ten generations from Adam to Noah. There’s an introduction to the line at the end of the previous section, dealing with the first couple of generations. In this we learn that Seth was the one Eve said was “granted” by God to replace Abel, whom Cain killed. The implication here is that the two lineages are to be viewed in contrast or opposition to one another; Seth’s line is representative of righteous Abel.

The line of Seth, then, is as follows (beginning from Adam):

  1. Adam

  2. Seth

  3. Enosh

  4. Kenan

  5. Mahalalel

  6. Jared

  7. Enoch

  8. Methuselah

  9. Lamech

  10. Noah

Then the line divides between Noah’s three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth.

At once we are struck by the similarity of many of the names: Enoch and Enosh (and Sethite Enoch himself turning up later), Irad and Jared, Methushael and Methuselah, Cainite Lamech and Sethite Lamech. Cainite Lamech’s three sons versus Noah’s three sons. Given that we are basically invited to view the two lineages as a contrast, this is very interesting.

A line of righteousness and a line of sin. Almost the same names, but with some few differences, and with the sinful Cainite line missing some.

I don’t know about you, but this put me in mind of the way Satan will counterfeit the work of God. He’s not very creative. Creativity comes from God, and Satan is opposed to God and all His works. All he can do is make bad copies. If you read the line of Seth first, the line of Cain looks like a poor-quality copy of the real one, missing all the details that make it live.

And yet he can’t suppress the Divine image completely. It’s out of the line of Cain that the innovations of pastoral nomadism, musicianship and metallurgy come down to us.

It’s easy to go so far in our contrasting of the lines of Cain and Seth as to paint the Cainites as entirely evil and unredeemable from start to finish. After all, the line of Cain begins with the first murderer and ends with the first polygamist and a man who takes the idea of vengeance so thoroughly into his own hands that he is prepared to kill in response to being struck. Yet it’s from him that we get the first musician, the first shepherd and the first metallurgist. And it’s from Cain that we get the first city. Are we to damn all of these things because of their origins in the line of Cain?

Obviously not. King David was a harpist. Abraham was a nomadic shepherd. God describes Himself as a metallurgist testing the heart like gold or silver. And Heaven is a city: the New Jerusalem.

To me, it points to the fact that the line of Cain, too, are made in the image of God. Which makes the eventual judgement of God that “every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil all the time” that much more tragic. Cain’s descendents weren’t fated to produce evil. They chose, every step of the way, to head down the path into wickedness. As did most of the descendents of Seth, it seems. It wasn’t just the line of Cain that was wiped out in the Flood.

Cain’s building of a city is an interesting physical statement from one whom God had consigned to be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). Cities don’t exactly wander here and there. The whole incident between Cain and Abel arose from Cain’s do-it-yourself approach to God. Back when Adam and Eve first sinned, God made coverings for them out of skins, showing that something had to die for their sin to be covered. Cain’s ignoring this and trying to bring whatever old thing he felt like as an offering to the Lord showed what was in his heart.

We can’t have a relationship with God on our terms because our sin gets in the way. It’s rather like saying to someone, “I’ll marry you, but I’m going to keep sleeping around with anyone else I feel like. You need to accept this or no deal.” It’s missing the point, and it’s not going to work. No-one righteous or truly loving is going to agree to that.

Cain’s offendedness when God gently exposed what was in his heart prompted the first murder, which was also the first example of religious violence. Even after God’s mercy in not putting him to death and in preserving him from vengeance, he still seems to want to approach God on his own terms. He builds a city, perhaps in an attempt to circumvent the punishment of God on him: Enoch (which in the Sumerian or Akkadian version of Semitic language would probably be the somehow more satisfyingly primeval-sounding Unuk), the primordial city. Nothing’s said about his son Enoch, for whom the city is named. We don’t know what his personal character was like. But we do know that Adam’s choice for sin over God set in place a downward spiral of more and more choice for sin rather than God. Sin begets sin. Or as the great theologian Yoda put it, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”.

The downward spiral is complete enough by the generation of Lamech that no-one of any moral sense wants to follow their line any more. The detailing of Cain’s story stops here. Lamech threatens vengeance ” not seven times over but seventy-seven times”; it may be this which Jesus contrasts when asked about how many times we should forgive. Lamech promised to take revenge seventy-seven times over. Jesus said, “No. Forgive not seven times but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). Don’t take revenge. Lay down your offendedness, your woundedness. Forgive and be healed. It reveals how far off-base people were getting.

By contrast, the line of Seth is traced from the one who is “granted” as a replacement for Abel, as I mentioned above. The seventh from Adam, Enoch, we are told “walked with God”: perhaps a reference to the previous time in Genesis where we are told about God walking: when He’s looking for Adam. But in contrast to his forefather, Enoch isn’t fleeing and hiding from the Lord, but walking with Him. The picture is one of relationship. The relationship was so close that it seems God couldn’t wait for him to die; he’s the only one in the list whose entry doesn’t finish with the leaden litany “and he died”, emphasising like a hammer blow the consequence of sin that human beings were never meant to bear. Enoch, by contrast, “walked with God and then he was not, because God took him”.

It’s intriguing to speculate on the circumstances of this antediluvian Elijah. The New Testament book of Jude states that he was a prophet, quoting the Jewish apocryphal Book of Enoch as pointing to God’s coming judgement. However, anything we say about him beyond what we are actually told in Scripture is speculation, and runs the risk of stepping across into the “myths” we are cautioned against by St. Paul.

Enoch’s son is Methuselah, famous as the longest-lived man in the Bible, with an astonishing 969 years of life. While I do not want to get into a discussion of the extraordinary lifespans of the antediluvian age, Methuselah’s is worth mentioning because of his name. One possible interpretation of the meaning of his name is the intriguing statement “When He Dies, Judgement”. It’s especially interesting because if you count up his age, he dies in the year of the Flood.

Remember, Methuselah was named by the prophetic Enoch. Was Enoch forewarned by God not only of the impending judgement, but on when it would come?

It’s possible. But what I want to draw out of this is the connection between the meaning of his name and the length of his lifespan. The one whose name might mean “When He Dies, Judgement” just happens to be the longest-lived man in the Bible. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, God is slow to anger. It takes time and effort to bring Him to the point of judgement.

Sadly, it seems the pre-Flood human race spent both on deliberately choosing sin over God. The Lord’s statement of grief over humanity reveals a profoundly terrifying condition: “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). Think about what that means. No redeeming features – evil all the time. Injustice, oppression, greed, lust, arrogance, lying, cheating, violence and murder. Every vice and perversion you can imagine, and a few you can’t, given free reign among people living for eight or nine hundred years at a time. We say people of eighty or ninety sometimes “get a bit set in their ways”, usually meaning “stubborn, difficult and a little mean-spirited”. Now multiply that by a factor of ten and make the people concerned hell-bent on evil. This is Hitler able to talk tactics with Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible sitting down to plot together. Every author of genocide and cruelty in the past 8-900 years able to watch and learn from one another, and egg one another on to further depths of depravity.

With the evident downward spiral we see in what’s recorded of the line of Cain, it’s evidence that yes, they really did deserve it when the Flood came.

Contrast Noah. His name is practically the same as the Hebrew word for “comfort”, and his father said of him that “he will comfort us in the labour and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed”. While I’m not sure that a global flood was what Lamech had in mind for “comfort”, the salvation of Noah and his family did put an end to the rampant sin whose origin had been the cause of the curse on the ground. Picturing the earth itself breathing a sigh of relief doesn’t seem too out of place.

Noah is described as “walking with God” (which shows relationship with the Lord), and as being “righteous” (which we understand from the New Testament to be a matter of faith) and “blameless” (by which we understand holiness of lifestyle). What John Wesley called “Christian perfection”: the state of grace in which you walk so closely with God that you don’t sin as a matter of course, but love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself. The contrast with his wicked and depraved generation could not be more profound.

As an aside, it intrigues me that the names of neither Noah’s wife nor of the wives of his sons are mentioned in Scripture. Lamech’s two wives get names. Even his daughter gets a name. Why not the righteous women?

I have a theory about that, though. Throughout the ancient world, there has been a tendency to want to deify primeval mother figures. Mothers are both strong and feminine, and bring forth life. This last especially is a divine attribute. My personal theory is that God did not want anyone making an idol of any of the mothers of the new human race. Indeed, considering that Moses is credited with assembling Genesis along with the other four books of the Torah, it’s possible that some of the pagan cultures around had already done so by his time, and that they were being worshipped by name as the mother goddesses of the ancient world.

Speculation, but interesting speculation. Take it with a whole spoonful of salt, not just a grain.

Anyway, returning to Noah. A man in relationship with his Lord. A man of faith. A man walking in holiness. What we’re told of him is that in contrast to his wicked and violent generation, he “found grace in the eyes of the Lord”.

He found grace. Unmerited favour. Not because he was sinless. Because God was pleased to show grace to him. And through him, to rescue the human race and bring forward His eternal rescue plan to deliver us from sin once for all.

Celebration of Creativity


The first thing we learn about God in the Bible is that He’s Creator. Genesis 1:1 tells us that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The first chapter of Genesis goes on to talk about God making the various parts of the cosmos, culminating in His making of human beings, “in the image of God”, and “male and female”.

While the ability to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and to breathe into the nostrils the breath of life, are solely Divine attributes, the implication of the culmination of God’s creative act is that creativity is directly tied to the image of God.

Human beings are limitlessly inventive. We make stuff up; we tell stories, we draw, paint and sculpt. We invent writing systems and write books upon books; we find new and better ways of harnessing the resources of the world in which we live. Bronze gives way to iron, which in turn gives way to steel, which in turn gives way to plastic and concrete and all manner of new materials, which in their turn give way to more “natural” materials. We write computer programs to do everything from entertain us to sending people to the moon.

The sheer pace of modern technological development is somewhat frightening. Computers are almost obsolete as soon as they hit the market. Skills which once led to high status are now deemed almost useless, or restricted to limited niche work.

We’re makers. It’s who we are.

Part of my problem with the evolutionary model of human development is that it seems to rest on the assumption that human creativity was much more limited in the past.

Like the discovery of metal-smelting, for instance. They tell us that they think the first metal smelted from ore was more or less accidental. Someone’s cooking fire got hot enough to release metal (probably copper or something else with a low melting point) from the rocks surrounding the fire.

I can buy that, but someone is going to observe the lumps of metal cooling in the ashes and think “that’s cool! I wonder if it would do it again?”

I find it practically inconceivable that people whom scientists assure us were every bit as intelligent as we are didn’t figure out some of this stuff sooner than anyone thinks.

“I wonder what happens if…” and “Will it do it again?” are part of what make us human.

Creativity is more than just figuring things out, however. Human inventiveness has never been confined to problem-solving; someone at Lascaux worked out that if they daubed different colours of earth on the cave walls, they could make some startling pictures. Someone imagined that this bison longbone would look great carved into a fish shape. Someone wanted to personalise their clay pot with a design pressed into the outside.

It’s what people do. It’s what God designed people to do.

There’s not a single human culture that doesn’t make some kind of art, whether it’s a Rembrandt oil painting or a Moai stone head on Easter Island. Cathedral ceiling or Homeric epic, it’s the image of God at work.

It bothers me that Christians are often some of the least creative people around. We’ve been redeemed from the curse of the fall to embody, in Christ, God’s original design for humanity. How can we be as uncreative as we sometimes are?

As Protestants, we distance ourselves from visual art in our churches, fearing that it smacks of idolatry. Certainly that’s a danger, but there’s an equal danger in our stark utilitarianism – God makes things beautiful; it’s pagan magical thinking that is only concerned with what use something is.

Our Christian storytelling is too often derivative, and we feel like we need to put massive labels over everything and make our moral point with a sledgehammer otherwise it isn’t Christian. We become sceptical or nervous of a tale featuring a witch, even as an adversary, lest we stray into pagan magic.

It’s a story. Good versus evil. Treat it on its own terms; look at the underlying Story, not the ornamental details. The symbolism may not be what we’re used to, but Jesus wasn’t afraid to use even serpent imagery for Himself (John 3:14).

Much has been made of the fact that in the Bible account, the various arts of metalworking, animal husbandry and music all stem from Lamech’s children in the line of Cain. Tubalcain, the father of metalworking, in particular turns up as the chief adversary in the recent Noah film, and his metalworking arts are turned to the despoliation of God’s green earth.

I see these arts’ placement as originating in the line of Cain as more like a salutary reminder that even the most wicked are still made in God’s image. Babylon was desperately wicked and has become a byword for opposition to righteousness, yet it was Babylon that made the famous Hanging Gardens.

And if the image of God expressed in the artistic and creative impulse is still present, then surely there is hope. After all, Christ died to restore the broken image.


Loving Isaac Without Rejecting Ishmael (Part 2: Ishmael)


In part 1 of this study, we looked at the beginning of Ishmael’s story, with Hagar becoming Abram’s wife and her flight from Sarai. In part two, we will look at Ishmael himself.

Ishmael doesn’t play much of an active role in the story of the patriarchs, but then, neither does Isaac really. The parts of the Bible where he appears are Abraham’s story, and he comes in more or less as he relates to Abraham and Sarah.

For such an effectively minor character, however, he certainly gets treated with a great deal of importance. The love Abraham has for him is evident, as is God’s care and concern for him. He is, after all, one of only eight people in the Bible to be personally named or renamed by God.

I’ve noticed a tendency among Christians to denigrate and downplay Ishmael. We make statements basically dismissing him as “Abraham’s mistake” or “the result of Abraham’s lack of faith”. We want to elevate and focus on Isaac as the son of the promise, but we do so to such a degree that we often seem to reject his elder brother entirely. I don’t think this is fair to the Scriptural account; God doesn’t seem to treat Ishmael as an unfortunate mistake, but rather He takes care of him and provides for him. We should not go so far in loving Isaac that we reject Ishmael. After all, as we shall see, God did not reject him.

Chapter 16 of Genesis leaves off with Hagar returning to Abram’s household and giving birth to her son Ishmael. Chapter 17 picks up thirteen years later with God instructing Abram to circumcise every male in his household who was eight days old, as a sign of the covenant God was making with him.

Abram’s name is changed by God, from Abram (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of a Multitude”). And Sarai is renamed Sarah (“My Princess” to the more powerful “The Princess”), and named as a mother of kings and of a special son to be named Isaac.

Abraham’s reaction when God says that Sarah will bear him a son is the entirely human one of incredulous laughter. It’s not like he and Sarah hadn’t been trying for lo these many years. Now, after all this time, now will Sarah bear a child?

The other part of Abraham’s reaction is the very natural and right concern for his other son. The son he had been given every reason to expect was the son who would inherit the covenant relationship with God.

God’s words to Abraham promising him a son by Sarah are very reminiscent of the words spoken by God the other times God specifically speaks to him, bringing him out of Haran to Canaan, and promising him a son of his own flesh. “Sarah will conceive a son. I will make her the mother of kings, many nations will come from her.” If Sarah’s son is all of that, what is to become of Ishmael? Is there something wrong with him? Is God rejecting him?

Naturally and rightly, as a father and a man before God, he’s concerned.

“Oh, that Ishmael might live under your blessing!” he says. Good for him. I would hope any good parent would echo that.

The next verses we need to read carefully, because our focus on Isaac as the child of promise can make us miss things. We’re apt to look at Ishmael through the lens of Galatians, where he’s serving in a symbolic role for the Jewish people, and that, too, can make us prone to gloss over things.

God’s response to Abraham’s desire for Ishmael is a clear and simple “Yes”.

It’s not often in the Scripture that we get such a simple and straightforward “Yes” from God, and it shows that God was fully and completely on board with Abraham’s fatherly desire for his son. He goes on to say that Isaac will have a particular covenant relationship with God, but Ishmael is in no way rejected. He, too, is still part of the household of faith.

It’s as if God says “Yes, Abraham. Everything you want for your son Ishmael – the relationship with Me, the inheritance, the becoming a great nation – I want too.”

Is Ishmael included in the Abrahamic covenant, then?

Well, kind of, maybe. Certainly he has a relationship with God; one of the last things we’re told about him is that “God was with him as he grew up.”

But equally certainly, the Bible account makes it clear that Isaac is the one through whom Abraham’s offspring will be reckoned. It’s Isaac, not Ishmael, who is in the line of the Messiah. Isaac is the primary heir of the covenant.

Ishmael, however, isn’t rejected. He’s part of God’s family and a partaker of Abraham’s covenant relationship with God. And presumably, because of the way covenants work, passing that partaking in a covenantal relationship with God (or at the very least its potential) down to his children.

This is not to say that either Arabs or Muslims don’t need to be saved. They need to know Jesus just like their brothers descended from Isaac do. What I take issue with is the idea you sometimes seem to get from very pro-Israel people that Ishmael’s descendents are basically barred from salvation and eternally outside the covenant. Enemies of Israel and thus cursed by God and rejected.

They aren’t. Even when God is confirming the covenant through Isaac, he’s taking care of Ishmael too. And even the most ardently pro-Israel people seldom explicitly take it that far. It’s more of an underlying attitude that gets communicated whether they mean it to or not.

In the fullness of time, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Named “Laughter”, he’s the son of promise, the one with whom God makes a special covenant.

It won’t be the last time God chooses a younger son over his older brothers. Jacob, Moses (probably), Gideon and David were all younger sons whom God chose. The culture common throughout the Biblical period was that it was the eldest son who was important. Even today, it’s the eldest son of the monarch who will inherit the crown.

But God frequently sets cultural norms aside when they don’t fit His purposes. It’s Isaac who gets chosen for the job of fathering the nation to which God would make a particular covenant. It’s David who gets anointed as the next king.

But Ishmael still isn’t abandoned. He’s still in Abraham’s household, elder brother of the heir of the promise.

His role as the elder brother is fascinating to me. Typically, the role of an elder brother is to take care of and guard his younger sibling. Is this a prophetic role God has for Ishmael? Is this something we should be praying into with regard to the descendents of the two sons of Abraham? I don’t know. Given the adversarial relationship they have today, it might seem unlikely, but for centuries, one of the safest places in the world to be a Jew was in a Muslim kingdom. And it wouldn’t be the first time that something that God intended gets totally inverted by Satan.

It’s my prayer that Ishmael will rediscover this calling and role, if such it is.

On the day Isaac is weaned (which according to Middle Eastern custom could even be as old as seven, though four would be more usual), Abraham has a big feast for his son Isaac. And now Ishmael’s thirteen-to-seventeen-year-old heart fills with envy.

It’s easy to imagine the source of his discontent. It’s the same thing Abraham had to work through with God earlier. It’s the same thing every parent has to work through when they have a second child. How do I love both my children equally yet differently? Ishmael was the centre of attention, the heir apparent, the son of the covenant. Now here comes Isaac. Son of Abraham’s first and senior wife, and according to God Himself destined to be the heir of a great promise. Teen angst, 2000 BC. Just add religious overtones.

Ishmael starts to mock.

As a Westerner, and particularly as a Brit, it’s difficult to get a grasp on how serious a cultural sin this is. We Brits mock everything; it’s our national pastime. Politicians, leaders, friends and foes. We even mock ourselves.

In this Bible culture, however, mockery is serious business. Saul wants to kill David because of a single line in a celebratory victory song that he thinks is mocking him. The prophet Elisha is jeered by some youths, and responds by calling down a curse on them so that they are mauled by bears. The wisdom book of Proverbs uses the word “mocker” to denote the sort of wilfully stupid and morally bankrupt person we would call a “jackass”. Jesus Himself says that anyone who calls his brother a worthless fool is worthy of judgement. We are told categorically that God Will Not Be Mocked.

We can see this attitude carrying through today in the reaction of Muslims to Western cartoons depicting their prophet. To us, it’s supposed to be amusing, and we don’t remotely understand why it’s a big deal. But Arabs are and have always been closer in culture to parts of the Bible. They understand this teaching on mockery far better than we.

Mockery takes something that someone else treats as important and denigrates it for the sake of humour. It shows a basic contempt for the thing being mocked and for the person who is offended by it. Contempt is directly counter to the ways of God because God values people.

So do I need to watch what kind of jokes I make? Probably. It’s easy to slip across the line from humour to contempt. In fact, it’s probably when we tell jokes that our inward attitudes are most revealed. We should be careful that we don’t secretly harbour contemptuous attitudes towards people Christ died for.

Does it mean we’re all at the mercy of whoever shouts “I’m offended” first?

Not necessarily. “I’m offended by this” is an easy claim to make, and I suspect some people claim offence which is not real. However, it’s not my place to determine which offences are real and which aren’t. I cannot get inside your head to know for sure if you’re genuinely offended or just disapproving, or even miffed at being called out for your crap. I have no way of knowing. So how can I set myself up as judge to arbitrate on what is or is not offensive to someone else?

Sarah is the one who sees what’s going on, and her reaction is swift, and to our eyes brutal. “Get that slave woman and her son out of here, because they will never share in the inheritance”.

Abraham is “greatly distressed, because the matter concerned his son”.

Is this a fatal character flaw in Ishmael? What about God’s “yes” to him? Is God now rejecting him? Do I really need to send him away?

God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah, because “it is through Isaac that your descendents will be reckoned”. It’s Isaac who bears the covenant, and Isaac who is in the lineage of the Messiah.

But even now, Ishmael isn’t forgotten or abandoned. “I will make him into a great nation also”, says the Lord. Twelve rulers will come from him, paralleling the twelve tribes of Israel. Though Isaac is the heir of God’s direct covenant, Ishmael, even with his unacceptable mockery of Isaac, is still the subject of God’s blessing and care.

Abraham sends him off with Hagar, and some provisions. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham himself went with them at least part of the way, and periodically visited them later on. This is not in the Bible, but it’s not unreasonable. Abraham is, for all his faults with deceptiveness, a good man and a good father to both his children. And certainly there was some sort of contact that went unrecorded by the Scriptural account, because Ishmael was at Abraham’s funeral. He wasn’t conpletely cut off, never to be heard from again.

At any rate, Ishmael and Hagar set off. They enter the desert region around Beersheba and run out of water. Ishmael gets weak. He’s a teenager, remember. He’s not going to have the same endurance as an adult. Maybe, too, he was being the responsible one and taking care of his mother by letting her get most of the water. But in the end, he’s almost dead from thirst.

Hagar lays him down and moves away from him, thinking that this is the end and not able to watch her son die.

But then God intervenes in Ishmael’s life, saving him and his mother for the second time. God references the boy’s name, saying that He has heard the boy crying. As we saw last time, God’s hearing is always connected with God’s acting. As it is written: “And if we know that He hears us, then we know that we have what we ask of Him”. There is suddenly a spring of water. Ishmael is saved, and his mother with him.

Furthermore, we’re told that God was with the boy as he grew up. God was not done with Ishmael. As shown by God’s rescue of him from death, He continued to care and provide for both of Abraham’s sons.

I cannot believe that God intends us to reject Ishmael’s descendents as part of showing love to Isaac’s. Yet I’ve heard “If Ishmael hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t have an Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East” more times than I can count. It’s true; we wouldn’t. But we might have something worse instead. For all their current conflicts, at least Israel and Ishmael are brothers. They share Abraham, and understand each other on a level that would probably not be the case with an Elamite-Israeli conflict, or a conflict with remnants of the Hittites, or anyone else. And as I said before, for a long time in history when Christians were inflicting horrible persecutions on the Jews, one of the safest places to be a Jew was under a Muslim ruler.

Ishmael was a partaker of his father Abraham’s covenant. That was not changed by his leaving Abraham’s household, as shown by the fact that God was with him. That covenant would be transmitted through Isaac to Jacob and his sons, to Moses and David, and would come to fruition with Jesus the promised Messiah. But Christ died for Ishmael and his descendents as surely as He died for Isaac and his.

Let’s not get so caught up in loving Isaac that we lose sight of that.