How does God ‘show up’ in your life?
Our story for week three of Lent is one in which God ‘shows up’ for Abraham. Actually, it is a feature of the Abraham stories that he meets and speaks with God relatively often. When Abraham meets with God they often speak easily, and relatively intimately, as friends. With Abraham there is little of the sense of being in danger that God’s presence seems to present to others.
The reader knows that it is God who has come to visit, but Abraham can see only men. These different levels of understanding, what Abraham knows and what the reader knows, are maintained throughout the story, so that even for us as readers it can become a little confusing.
Abraham is left to discover the identity of his visitors himself. This is important, because it means that at least at the beginning Abraham does not know who the visitors are – he only knows that strangers have arrived at his door.
The mystery does get cleared up by the end of the story, so that by the time Abraham is standing opposite God and bargaining with him to save the people of Sodom (Genesis 18.22–33), both the reader and Abraham know that it is God that Abraham is talking with.
Stories about offering hospitality to gods or semi-gods were prevalent in the cultures of the nations surrounding ancient Israel.
One of the things this story shows us is that the line between meeting God and meeting others can be rather fine. Christians have often understood the ambiguity about the number of Abraham’s visitors (one or three?) and their nature (divine or human?) as indicating that Abraham’s visitors were actually the persons of the Holy Trinity.
We honour the text when we read it on its own terms and try to free our perceptions of what we know came later. Further, I think that you run the risk of missing some of what the story has to offer if you are too determined to understand the visitors to be the Holy Trinity. For example, you miss the different levels operating in the story, in which you as the reader know one thing and Abraham sees another.
Offering hospitality to a passing traveller was a way of converting a potentially dangerous stranger into an ally.
While the host would be expected to offer the most generous hospitality he could afford, the guest was required to graciously accept whatever was offered, without asking for more.
The guest also had one more obligation relevant to Genesis 18– he was expected to offer some kind of gift in return for the hospitality he’d received.
Scholars love to argue about apparently minor details, and they have had a great debate about the quality of Abraham’s hospitality! Most scholars have been agreed that Abraham’s hospitality was lavish.
Having children is something that is programmed into us. The desire has to be strong so that we are motivated to take on the gargantuan task of raising another person. This can make it excruciatingly painful if we, like Sarah and Abraham, find ourselves unable to have a child.
Abraham’s hospitality also heralded unexpected change. heir. Childlessness was Abraham’s particular longing, but it had an unusual extra twist because without an heir Abraham did not see how any of God’s other promises could be realized.
Sarah herself attributes her barrenness to God (Genesis 16.2), so she comes up with a plan to overcome her affliction. She will send her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham in order that Hagar might have Abraham’s child on Sarah’s behalf. Surrogacy arrangements, like this one, IVF and donation of eggs and sperm are all methods that we use to try to help nature do its job.
Unfortunately, Sarah has not thought through all of the likely consequences of her plan. When Hagar duly conceives she apparently recognizes the tactical advantage that she has achieved over her mistress and she looks upon Sarah with contempt (Genesis 16.5). Sarah again turns to Abraham, who appears to abdicate responsibility for Hagar, pretty much as he had previously abdicated responsibility for Sarah during their sojourn in Egypt (Genesis 12.10–20). Abraham tells Sarah to do as she pleases. Sarah treats Hagar badly and the pregnant Hagar flees (16.6). Hagar is ‘found’ by the angel of the Lord by a spring of water in the wilderness. The angel tells her to return to Sarah and submit to her. Just as there is ambiguity about the nature of Abraham’s visitors in Genesis 18, so there is ambiguity about the identity of the angel in Genesis 16.
By verse 13 it becomes clear that it is actually God to whom Hagar is speaking. God tells Hagar to name her son Ishmael, meaning ‘God hears’ or ‘God will hear’. Then, extraordinarily, Hagar gives God a name. She calls God ‘El Roi’, or ‘God who sees’.
The act of naming was thought by the Israelites to generate special power, so that the person doing the naming acquired a certain power or influence over the person being named.
The text doesn’t explicitly say that Hagar returns to Sarah and Abraham. It seems that she does so, however, and that she gives birth to Abraham’s ‘firstborn’, Ishmael. Abraham
and Sarah have the child they wanted. Everybody (other than Hagar) is now happy. It is hard to imagine, then, how Abraham feels in Genesis 17 when, thirteen years later, God appears and promises to give him a son by Sarah. Initially, Abraham is so surprised that he falls on his face and laughs!
One final thing expected of a guest – he was expected to give his host a gift. This was a way of ‘evening up the score’ (even if the gift was of no monetary value) so that there was no outstanding sense of obligation that might possibly lead to violence between host and guest. Here in Genesis 18 Abraham’s guests give him a gift.
In Abraham and Sarah’s case their concern about treating the two boys equally is magnified by the fact that God is determined to treat the two boys differently. God chooses Isaac, but excludes Ishmael from his covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
Sarah and Abraham took matters into their own hands. Despite several years having passed God had not given Abraham and Sarah a son, and so they took the initiative. Sarah’s plan can be thought of as just such a ‘setting out’. It would be an understatement to say that things did not initially go smoothly (especially for Hagar!).
But what was the longer-term outcome? (see next week’s study).Isaac will stand within the covenant and inherit the divine promises from Abraham, but Ishmael will not. In one sense, then, Ishmael is born into a situation of inequality. However, this is not to say that Ishmael is not important to God, or that he will not receive God’s blessing. Although Ishmael will not be a member of the covenant people, God does make promises in respect of Ishmael and some of them are the same as the original promises to Abraham!
Ishmael is by no means an interloper or second-class citizen in God’s long-term plan.
His existence transforms both Abraham’s legacy and the world that we know. This is the way in which God acts in our lives with, around and sometimes despite our actions. As I said back in Chapter 1, in God’s economy nothing is wasted.
The renewed promise of a son does not come to Abraham and Sarah in the context of something dramatic that they do. Neither Abraham nor Sarah reacted terrifically well to the visitors’ gift of a renewed promise that they would have a son.
What can we take away from the story of Abraham’s hospitality?
We have a God who is not limited by the things that limit us. t is important that we don’t try to limit God, but keep ourselves open to what he may choose to accomplish in us.
God works within the everyday order and activities of our lives. Loving others is part of loving God. This is so even if we are carrying with us long-term unresolved longings, unanswered prayer or unhealed illness. Nine times out of ten we will not be rewarded, apart from knowing that we are doing God’s will. Sometimes, however, just sometimes, we will find that we are entertaining angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13.2).
1. Is there a long-term longing, or unanswered prayer, in your life? Does it have anything to do with the journey you are currently on?
2. What is the hospitality code by which you live? Why do you live by it?
3. When has God ‘turned up’ in your life? What parts were ordinary? What parts extraordinary? Did you know that it was God, and how did you respond?
4. Does it matter at what point in the story Abraham realized that his visitor was God? Why?
5. Why did Sarah laugh? What does the narrator think of her laughter? How can you tell?
6. Influenced by this story, Benedictine monastics welcome all visitors to their monasteries as Christ. How might ordinary Christians incorporate this approach in their everyday life?
7. What do you think about Sarah and Abraham’s situation, with the promise of this new son?
8. Do you, perhaps, question whether Sarah and Abraham were right to pursue the surrogacy option with Hagar?
9. Does the renewed promise of a son suggest that they were wrong to try to find their own solution?
10. Is Abraham’s role in all of this perhaps a further instance of the scepticism, or lack of faithfulness, that he displayed in Genesis 15?