Genesis 25

Abraham lies down for his final rest and is buried with Sarah; the first, founding generation passes its baton and the great heritage takes a step forwards. Isaac though does not get much time as narrative center in Genesis, for already in this chapter his twin sons Esau and Jacob are born, the very famous story of the sold birthright occurs, and we have more than enough hints to realize that Jacob will dominate not only his brother but very much of our attention in what follows. He, after all, will become Israel (Chapter 32). There is a detail about Isaac in this section that is both comforting and evocatively prodding however, but I think it is probably easy to miss amidst the excitement of the fast moving telling of Rebekah’s conception, oracle, the boys’ growth, and their rivalry.

As mentioned, the tale of Esau trading his birthright and status as heir to the (extremely slightly) younger Jacob for a meal is astonishingly well-known in Western culture: “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down [Jacob’s freshly made stew], for I am famished” Esau colorfully remarks in verse thirty, with the result thereafter coming in verses 33b-34: “So he [Esau] swore to him [Jacob], and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.” The implications of this act within the setting of place and time have been widely discussed, as have the theological, conventional, literary, and other affixed aspects, and for my part I do not find much that could be added. We shall therefore turn instead to a trio of verses related to Isaac and his subtler role in the drama.

Note what comes to the fore when the verses below are read in conjunction:

25.20-21; 26b: “Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived. …Isaac was sixty years old when they [Esau and Jacob] were born.”

Human pregnancies are long within the animal kingdom (although elephants, whales, dolphins, and probably others I am unaware of beat us), but they do not reach to twenty years! Rebekah is symbolically connected with Sarah in being unable to have a child (and not only her, for example the soon-to-be-met Rachel, Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, Samson’s unfortunately unnamed mother, and the New Testament’s Elizabeth, mother of John the Bapitzer (a better rendering it seems than “the Baptist”), amongst others), but rather than trying to find another spouse or partner we are told that Isaac pleaded with God/“God” for intervention, and that his prayers were heard and positively answered. However not, it appears, very speedily. The lesson here on steadfastness is as obvious as it is profound, and hence probably in danger of being moved over or even ignored. I think though that the text – in breaking things up this way – asks us to pause and to consider, particularly if we reflect that in the immediately proceeding episode of the stew and birthright the idea that one never quite knows what may happen and how far the consequences might extend is spelled out quite clearly. Throughout their long struggle and their long wait, how could Rebekah and Isaac have been feeling? Did they lose faith? If they had there is no indication that Isaac took matters into his own hands to provide an heir such as his very father had done (Chapter 16); what about the divine promise of uncountable progeny? Did they still believe in it? Had they resigned themselves to merely seeing what unfolded? We have naught to go on for these queries, and hence the story compels us to wonder and to compare ourselves. What might we do? How much can we trust, how much can we bear when there are no visible results and nothing to motivate? If Isaac teaches us anything here it is either the stubbornness or the groundlessness of hope; but both of these are beautiful.

Genesis 24

In life things rarely work out just so; we wander and wonder, try and fail, move now here and now there, start something different before our previous endeavour has even finished, give up when we ought to persevere, persevere when we ought to give up. The beauty of a good narrative is that none of these “what if’s” hold: the creator knows beforehand what type of story is to be told and sets to crafting it; would that it were thus for you and I. It is not, of course, and as we flail about in the – unintended! – messes of our own making we can do little but respond. In this chapter we have an example par excellence of the courage to find serendipity in what must have seemed the most random of chances.

Many readers will approach this longest section of Genesis from the point of view of Abraham’s servant, and this is not surprising since he is clearly the main character in the tale and it is his actions around which the plot revolves. Seen from his perspective the events that unfold are examples of perfect divine providence, and grace and blessings that do not even have to be waited for. He has barely completed setting out his own parameters for the extremely precise sign he wishes to have from God/“God” when it is obligingly provided: bada bing! Exactly that sought served up on a silver platter, one could not ask for a smoother and easier end to things. Which is the point, after all: God/“God” provides, Abraham’s faithfulness and steadfast trust is rewarded; and the servant’s as well, let us not forget.

This, though – while important, no doubt – misses something else in this narrative arc that I think is quite remarkable, a detail which is small and thus easy to overlook but once noticed its significance becomes clear. This is Rebekah’s response. If we make an effort to see through her eyes a bit – if we place her (rightfully) central – what is there? She had gone out to the well to draw the necessary household water as she always did at that time of day; a stranger approaches and asks for a drink; she is hospitable with him and even quite generous in her offer to additionally draw sufficient amounts for his animals to refresh themselves too (again, demonstrating the very biblical virtue of generosity, as we have already noted and as readers can find throughout the Tanakh, the deuterocanonical texts, and especially in the Gospels and some of the Epistles of the Christian scriptures); suddenly and out of nowhere this same man produces copious amounts of expensive jewelry and requests to be given room and board at her father’s home, to which she assents. All this is remarkable enough, but upon arrival and with further details from this traveling mystery it is explained that he is seeking a spouse for his extremely wealthy master who currently lives far, far away but is in fact related to them. More goods are forthcoming for her, her brother, and her mother (although not for her father, who only makes the briefest of appearances in verse fifty, making the reader question if whether or not this was some kind of extra scribal flourish that crept in), and – pausing to remember sociohistorical and cultural details of the time and place – Rebekah finds herself essentially bought. If this were me, I would probably be both besides myself and also somewhat upset; likely highly frightened as well. Yet that is not how Rebekah takes these developments; hers is a braver heart.

Whatever the complications and expectations might have been in regards to the aforementioned bride-price (did acceptance signal acquiescence?), Rebekah is still ostensibly given a choice in the matter: her brother and mother, whom evidently are negotiating on her father’s behalf (history and culture again), tell Abraham’s servant (verse fifty-seven): “Let us call the girl and ask for her reply.” What will she do? The most astonishing thing:

24.58: “They [mother and brother] called Rebekah and said to her, ‘Will you go with this man?’ And she said, ‘I will.’”

She says “yes”. Rebekah had been going about her fully ordinary routine, the unlooked for occurred, a series of connections she had hitherto been entirely unaware of were outlined to her, fate – or providence – extended its open hand, and she grasps it and goes. She could have declined: she could have stayed where she was and probably had a very nice, secure, and stable life, being cared for by her family and caring for them. Instead, and – amazingly – without having any specific idea of what the other end will entail (she may have guessed, there were admittedly a few vague hints), she agrees. She demonstrates to us what it is to live a life that takes happenstance as revelation and that is unafraid to trust, to undertake, and to see what becomes. Naturally from our contemporary concerns we might argue that Rebekah did not need a man, that her going to marry a stranger was perhaps not the wisest nor the most empowering choice, but we must recall the setting and context within which this ancient myth takes place. Thinking in those terms, and taking her “yes” to Abraham’s servant as an equal “yes” to the numinous, what Rebekah did is really quite heroic. May we be so willing to roll life’s dice, to do and to hope.

Genesis 23

The high divine-human drama of the previous chapter shifts here to more mundane relations – between individuals but also people groups – and is characterized by a politically astute negotiation that betrays once more Abraham’s exemplary ethics of generosity and personal restraint. It is also marked by the passing of beloved Sarah and thus signals the generational turn that will occupy the next few chapters of Genesis before moving again: Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to Joseph.

Twice we are told that the center of action lies in what became known as Hebron (verses two and nineteen), a town that is about midway between Beer-Sheba (where Abraham acquired a well and its land from Abimelech in 21.25-32) and Jerusalem, thus meaning that through the events of this narrative Abraham is expanding the land rights of his descendants, slowly but surely, in an arc running north from the Negev into the Hill Country. (The elevation of such, incidentally, explaining why one “goes up” to Jerusalem, regardless of point of approach.) With a parcel here and a parcel there something quite new is being built, and although Abraham is behaving merely out of practical need – it must be stressed that it seems unlikely the character in these stories would have had some grand scheme in mind, and hence although the tales are not historical they have an important lesson to teach about doing what one can irrespective of any ultimate outcomes one may or may not expect; even hope for – the unnoticed contextual forces of history’s flow are on the move. (This is not, by the way, necessarily claiming a telos – maybe there is one, maybe there is not – but it is an indication of how interlaced everything is in the web of causes, effects, and happenstances that makes up our universe.)

Sarah has passed away and Abraham needs a place to bury her. He goes to “the people of the land” (verse seven), those amongst whom he and his household have recently been living, and asks that they “intercede for me [him; i.e. Abraham] with Ephron son of Zohar” (verse eight); and of course as Abraham knew Ephron was right there with the others. This is the first instance of Abraham’s political craftiness: calling out the owner of the property he wanted to purchase by name in the hearing of many, rather than a direct one-to-one address. Abraham then asks that he – Ephron – sell him “the cave…at the edge of his land” (verse nine), and therefore not asking for too much; this is the second aspect of Abraham’s brilliance to be noticed. What commences?

Ephron naturally responds for himself from out of the crowd, and offers not only the cave but the entire field on which it stands as a gift: something that could not be accepted within the cultural mores of the time and place, as everyone would have recognized (verse eleven). Abraham offers to pay the full price (verse thirteen) – as again those present would have known must take place within the back and forth – and Ephron responds with an amount that must have been astronomical (verse fifteen). Perhaps the thinking (of the figures in the story, but also of the listeners to whom this account would have been told in its iterations) was that a more reasonable counteroffer would be forthcoming, instead the text tersely reports in verse sixteen that “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms.” This is the third evidence of Abraham’s skill and ethical magnanimity. It is also a sign of incredible wealth (the resources to do so) and a lack of attachment to that wealth (the will to calmly and unconcernedly part with it). The deal is done (verse sixteen); the land, its cave, and all of its trees (thusly further investing in the future, it will be noted) become Abraham’s (verses seventeen through eighteen and twenty), and Sarah is laid to rest (verse nineteen). Abraham does what he needs to for his family, and is respectful and beyond fair with others. Teachers by example like this are few and far between; fictional or not, each is worth treasuring.

Genesis 22

The first nineteen verses here are some of the most famous in the entire Bible, and the story is foundational to much of Western culture. It is a remarkable tale, supremely told, and as heart-rending today as it must have been for its first hearers. Abraham’s greatest test, the near sacrifice of Isaac: release, restoration, and a re-affirmation of promise.

The details here warrant a book-length treatment, but since ours is not the place for such expansiveness instead we will merely mention two hints of the depth available to be explored; these will have to suffice as indicators of what might be discussed prior to turning to the points which we will highlight. The first of these, then, is that Abraham’s “Here I am” of verse one is the same Hebrew term (hineni) that also forms his response to Isaac’s call in verse seven (given differently in its English translation) and to the “angel’s” address in verse eleven (whom, it might be commented, interestingly speaks of the divine using the first person: verse twelve has it state, “I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from Me.”). This word, scholars tell us, indicates a state of attention, openness, and a willingness to respond. Abraham is fully alert; he is “in the moment” as a Zennist might put it. Secondly, as has been written in the Genesis Rabbah, Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice (and incidentally, with this image in mind, what Isaac knew or intuited by this labor of his the text itself does not mention) is like a person about to be executed by the Romans and caused to carry their own cross. We can of course understand Jesus here; but so too many, many others who were cruelly put to death by this method.

On those lines of utter self-sacrifice, we note verse nine: “They arrived at the place of which God had told him [i.e. Abraham]. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.” I have long thought about this: there is no mention whatsoever of a struggle here; Isaac allows himself to be bound, he submits to being placed on the wood, he becomes the sacrifice. I imagine him gazing up at his father – knife held aloft, its tip glinting down at him, suspended there in the sunlight – with his eyes wide open; accepting. “May it be,” he might have thought, “Hineni.” Culturally, socio-historically, the fact that he was innocent only made the offering that much more appropriate.

“Looking,” and “seeing” provide the next pair of verses to dwell on:

22.13-14: “When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a [there is a footnote here: “Reading ’eḥad with many Heb. mess. and ancient versions; text ’aḥar ‘after.’”] ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. And Abraham named that site Adonai-yireh, [footnote: “I.e., ‘the LORD will see’; cf. v. 8.”] whence the present saying, ‘On the mount of the LORD there is vision.’ [another footnote: “Heb. Behar Adonai yera’eh.”]”

Abraham was open, Isaac was open, they were fully alive in the world and in the very specific situational details which they trusted God/“God” had placed them in; whatever we may make of the empirical implications of this type of ontological thinking, what remains is that the characters in this story trusted and acted in the awareness and alertness of what we might call “hineni”: they said yes to and in trust, as indeed much of the “kingdom of God” message of Jesus would centuries later promote (e.g. of the “birds of the air, lilies of the field” type; see Matthew 6.26-33, and from the so-called “lost Gospel” known as Q the Sayings numbered 51-53). What is more, in so doing they were thereby able to “see” (comprehend) and notice that everything necessary was already present, pre-provided as it were, ready and waiting, they only had to take it and put it to use. It is naturally possible to protest that the ram who became the sacrifice was equally as innocent as Isaac (maybe more) and neither deserved nor needed to die, but such entirely misses the purpose of a narrative like this which is not anyway literally true; it is rather literary-ally true, which is to claim that it has a kind of mythic and symbolic truth that imparts a valuable life lesson for we humans trying to find a place for these tiny existences of ours within a vast universe, for the significance we are blessed to have despite the cosmic insignificance (astronomically thinking) of our little corner of space. We find the meanings that we make, and fables like this go a long way towards helping impart such. One more reason to keep reading.