Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Roller Coaster of Trusting God

I want to tie my reflection from this weeks hangout into this weeks blog post. We’re going to look at trust and which ancestral stories relate to trust of divine promises and how that trust looks in these stories and changes over time. 

As it was the focus of the hangout reflection we will begin with Abram and Sarai. At the very beginning of their story together Abram is called by God to leave his homeland and settle in Canaan. Abram obeys God’s call, putting his trust that they will survive. However, due to a famine they end up traveling down to Egypt where Abram tells everybody that Sarai is his sister and not his wife. Here, Abram, who had initially trusted God, stops believing that God will take care of him. He believes that the Egyptians will kill him to marry his wife, so he lies to them and they marry her anyway. Once they learn what he did they kick Abram and Sarai out of Egypt for what they did in calling each other siblings so that in the end his life wasn’t in jeopardy at all. (Gen. 12) This movement from trust in God’s promises to disbelief will be continued throughout their story.

Later, God makes a covenant with Abram to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. (Gen. 15) Immediately after God makes this covenant Sarai tells Abram to sleep with Hagar so that she may have a child for him since Sarai was barren. (Gen 16) This is often attributed to her lack of faith in God’s promise but God’s covenant did not say that Abram would have children with Sarai, just that his descendants would be numerous. With this considered it is possible that it is because of Sarai’s faith in God that she tries to help God’s plan along by having Hagar bear Abram’s children. 

Once God renames Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah three men appear and tell Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son. Unlike last time when Sarai was willing to believe and do what she thought she should to help this take place, this time, Sarah laughs in disbelief. (Gen. 18)

The next story with Abraham and Sarah involves them traveling to Gerar where Abraham’s faith fails once again. Despite Sarah’s last failure of trusting in God Abraham’s faith is no better. The fact that Sarah has not yet had a child means that Abraham will remain safe until that time unless God has lied. Yet, while in Gerar, Abraham once again tells people that Sarah is his sister because he’s worried once again that people will kill him for her. (Gen 20) His lack of trust in God is almost certainly at the lowest it will ever be. In the last two stories both Abraham and Sarah have failed to trust God’s word and yet, after Abraham learns of his failing, God fulfills the promise to them and Sarah gives birth to Isaac. (Gen 21:1-7)

Finally, God tells Abraham to go and sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham, having so recently in the story failed to trust in God’s promise of having descendants, takes his son, in whom that promise was borne out, and prepares to sacrifice him. (Gen 22:1-19) Abraham’s faith reaches a level which it had never been at before. He fully trusts in God despite that it looks like God is going back on God’s promise. This is the highest point of Abraham’s faith. The back and forth between trusting in God and lacking faith ends with Abraham showing that he trusts God fully, so close in the narrative after he failed so horribly. You can see in this story how the people Israel will trust in God. They will be like Abraham and their faith will not remain strong and steadfast. It will rise and fall over time but God’s faithfulness to them will not fail just as it did not fail for Abraham. 

This is a pattern we see with the ancestors of Israel. Isaac mirrors his father’s faith. When he goes down to Gerar, just like Abraham did, he, just like Abraham, tells them that his wife, Rebekah, is his sister. As Abraham’s failing in Gerar was his lowest point, Isaac’s failing is even worse. Isaac fails immediately after God reinforces the covenant to Isaac that was made with Abraham. Isaac’s story is fairly short, and mostly revolves around his children, Esau and Jacob, but after Isaac leaves Gerar he is successful and is once approached by the king, his advisor, and the commander of the army. Instead of fearing for his life, Isaac greets them, hears them out, and has a feast prepared for them. (Gen 26) It’s not a revolutionary of a change as Abraham, but his faith, in the end, returned. 

The ancestral stories reflect this struggle with trusting God’s promise despite the overwhelming evidence that God is faithful. If the ancestors struggle as much as they do, then surely the people Israel will struggle in their faith. In fact, when Jacob is renamed Israel it is for this very purpose. They are to be the people who struggle with God. However, God’s faithfulness endures through their doubts and failings and their faith and trust always returns in the end.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Lack of Faith or Buying into the Vision: Google Hangout Reflection

(Warning: there’s a discussion about sexual violence in Genesis in this blog)

In our Google Hangout for this week Dr. Lester and Dr. Koenig continued our discussion about the Pentateuch. What I found particularly interesting was their discussion of the matriarchs and other women in the Pentateuch and how they are classically treated compared to the men. 

The question was raised whether Sarai truly displays a lack of faith when she has Abram sleep with Hagar so that she may have a child with him. (Gen. 16) Could it be that Sarai knew of the promise God had just made with Abram and, knowing herself to be barren, did what she had to so that God’s promise would be fulfilled? This is a possibility, although when she then gets upset and drives Hagar into the wilderness we see something else. I’m not willing to say that she was or wasn’t trying to be an active participant in God’s plan because of that though. People are complicated beings and letting your husband sleep with another woman would certainly not have been incredibly easy.

Sarai/Sarah’s story is countered with the two occasions when Abram/Abraham passes her off as his sister and not as his wife. These stories take place both before and after Sarai sends Abram to sleep with Hagar. Just as Sarai had her spouse sleep with somebody else Abram’s declaration of Sarai as his sister is done knowing that she will be taken by other men and be forced to sleep with them (although the second time the man who takes her, Abimelech, doesn’t sleep with her). 

Let’s be clear, Sarai does offer her slave to Abram, and even if she does do it out of a lack of faith, it is Abram who then rapes Hagar. But it is Abram/Abraham who concocts plan to call Sarai /Sarah his sister so that other men will take her and rape her. The first time Sarai is taken by Pharaoh who sleeps with her and as mentioned the second time Abimelech takes her but doesn’t sleep with her.(Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20) In both occasions it is either mentioned or implied that Abram/Abraham does this because he’s afraid people would kill him out of jealousy if they knew Sarai/Sarah was his wife so he protects himself and allows violence to come against her. Yet it is Sarai who is treated as not having faith, not Abram/Abraham who expects God would not keep him safe.

It’s worth mentioning that Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, seems to have learned this trick from his father. (Gen. 26:1-11) When God sends Isaac to live in Gerar he tells everybody that his wife is his sister because he has the same fears Abraham did. When the king finds out he’s upset, but luckily nobody had taken Isaac’s wife yet. Funnily enough, the king in question is Abimelech who I imagine is tired of Abraham and his son’s ridiculous fear and the risk it puts them all in. In modern times I image he’d say something along the lines of “what is this? I can’t even…” Putting up with the line of Abraham was not the easiest thing to do.

To finish, I’d like to leave you with a quote from the hangout. While discussing the possibility to see the actions of women in the Old Testament in a new light Dr. Lester said, “women act in the ways that are available to them and they are not the same ways that are available to men. And so what often looks kind of like sneaky, deceptive, conniving behavior, if you look at… the constricted and warped shape of the social space in which women live… their actions, which look like corkscrews, are a straight line in the space in which they live.” We shouldn’t read the Old Testament as if women were allowed to take the same actions as men. We should read their stories as if they have to act and behave differently if they want to achieve their goals.