The Arc of Noah’s Progeny . . . and God

A sermon based on Genesis 12:1-4a
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 8, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This morning I am going to preach about how God’s call to Abram and his wedded life partner Sarai plays out. But I am going to call them by names God gives them later on, Abraham and Sarah. God’s call that we heard in the Lectionary lesson for today is short, but as a whole it gets pretty complicated. First of all there’s the difficulty of being asked to leave friends and a home and go to an unnamed place especially in exchange for a pretty vague covenant of promises. I like the story because Abraham and Sarah had enough faith and moxie to just do it– the call is vague but so real, they get up and go.
Just before the verses Robin read so well, we learn that Abraham and Sarah are both direct descendants of Noah. But Abraham and Sarah are famous in their own right. And while we may think of them now as legends who are unlike us, because we often feel flawed and unworthy, Abraham and Sarah are also flawed by human standards– and yet their worthiness to God is never in doubt. Moreover, while Abraham and Sarah have lots of doubts and make mistakes, like I said, they still just do it– they answer God all along the way with their doubts and with their warts. See while they are ten generations removed from Noah, most everyone back then would have to have come from Noah in the Bible stories, since he and his family are said in the stories to be the sole reboot of humanity.
The distant in time makes the connection to Noah fleeting, so Abraham and Sarah are pretty much an ordinary Joe and Jane living with their dad, following his commands. That is until they listen to God and follow divine commands and prove that we ordinary Joes and Janes have extraordinary potential that can play out when we listen to God. Just doing it, answering God’s call provides blessings. In Abraham and Sarah’s case there is no doubt God’s promises and blessings come true.
Since I have been preaching that Lent is a time to learn about our faith I decided to try to summarize Abraham and Sarah’s story. We tend to hear and remember bits and pieces, which can be meaningful, but we miss some meaning from the arc of the story. Most of us may have a sense Sarah and Abraham were blessed and blessings, and founded Judaism, but we rarely stand back and look at the large tapestry of the narrative. That narrative seems to have origins going back four thousand years or so. And if we think the story is old, Abraham is 75 and Sarah is 65 when the call is heard– they’re senior citizens throughout the story. If there is NO OTHER take away, their ages suggest there is time enough left for all of us to do as God beckons– and maybe that is one point of the long-in-the-toothiness of so many Bible heroes. Past our prime we are all still primed to be God’s instruments, still able to be blessed and to be blessings! We still matter much and are loved by God.
In addition to long qualifying for Golden Buckeye cards, Sarah and Abraham are also childless which was seen as a curse and flaw in their culture. So they have age and barrenness as marks against them for much of the story. And if those are not enough strikes against them they are not natives to the land God calls them to. God calls them to be alien refugees. Like some cultures today– aliens were looked down on and mistreated by many back then. And much of the Bible is told from the perspective of aliens oppressed by others, and has rules against oppressing aliens. This often surprises folks, but it shouldn’t given that Judaism begins with Abraham and Sarah being called by God to go and be aliens. And they do just that. The lesson begins with them in Haran a city their dad, Terah, led them to with his brothers a nephew named Lot.
God’s call, that Robin read, comes at Haran. That call results in Abraham, Sarah and Lot going to and settling in Canaan. After settling in Canaan a famine strikes. So they flee to Egypt. As they flee some strange, uncomfortable, violent and sexist things happen. On the way Abraham tells Sarah that they need to say they are brother and sister– as I mentioned they have the same father, Terah. Abraham insists on the disclosure because husbands were said to own their wives and so he is worried that he might be killed to get at Sarah, a husband cannot sell a wife, whereas a brother can sell a sister. When they get to Egypt sure enough Pharaoh wants Sarah for her beauty. So as planned they claim to be brother and sister and Pharaoh pays Abraham for Sarah. Right away Pharaoh and his family are literally plagued. Pharaoh discovers it is because he took Sarah for a wife when she was already married. Women could only have one husband. To end the curse Pharaoh exiles them both which leads them back to Canaan.
They settle in the same area as Lot, when their flocks outgrow the area Lot moves to land near Sodom. Abraham moves to the land on the Plain of Mamre. At one point Sodom is plundered by a raiding army and Lot is captured. Abraham rescues Lot, recovers the loot and returns it to the grateful King of Sodom who blesses Abraham. Shortly after that blessing God comes to Abraham in a vision reminding him of the promised land and blessings– and this time God identifies the land, and promises many descendants and foretells the Hebrew’s Egyptian enslavement to occur centuries later. After the dream Sarah and Abraham wonder how God will provide descendants and seed nations through them, since Sarah is past childbearing age. They decide to make it happen by having Abraham impregnate Sarah’s slave Hagar, who’s children are considered Sarah’s.
Hagar tragically has no say about any of this. If that was not bad enough when Hagar becomes pregnant Sarah is jealous and mistreats her. Hagar runs away to the wilderness and God meets her there and tells her to go back to Sarah. God also tells Hagar she will have a boy, and to name him Ishmael and that she’ll have many offspring. Hagar names God El-roi, which means “he sees me.” God sees this alien female slave abused by God’s chosen, but flawed, people. The Bible makes it clear Hagar matters much. She’s honored to hear God’s covenant directly; honored to experience the first annunciation in the Bible; and honored as the only person in the Bible to name God! Those oppressed by God’s people are also seen by God and matter! God sides toward their well being.
After talking to God Hagar returns and we are told that Abraham is 86 when Ishmael is born. When Ishmael enters adolescence – and Abraham is nearly 100- God reveals that circumcision will be a sign of the covenant, and reveals Sarah will bear his son, whom he is to name Isaac. The news that ninety year old Sarah would have a child made Abraham literally fall down laughing. After he got up, and this was no laughing matter, he had all the males in his household over eight days old circumcised.
The next thing we know Abraham is resting in the shade of his tent, when three figures visit. Abraham provide them with hospitality, welcomes them, washes their feet and serves them a feast. It turns out two of the visitors are angels and one of them is God. God tells Abraham that within a year Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs. God asked why Sarah was laughing, and adds “Is anything too wonderful for God?” After the feast Abraham walks with the visitors a short way toward their destination. On the walk he learns that Sodom and Gomorrah are at risk of destruction as a consequence of sinful behavior. The angels are going to check it out. Abraham bargained with God to stop the destruction if at least ten righteous men could be found there.
When the angels get to Sodom, they receive the exact opposite of the hospitality that Abraham had shown them. A mob of men sought to violently assault them in a terrible manner not un common in that time and place to dominant others into submission. Despite what we might hear this attempted assault has nothing to do with any type of sexuality, it was a barbaric form of conquering. Lot rescues the angels from that violence. But the conduct was a sign the city’s people were wicked. The prophet Ezekiel later details the wickedness was that Sodom “had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Eze 16:49). Jesus later suggests the sin of Sodom included being grossly inhospitable. In the story the sins have consequences. Sodom and Gomorrah go up in flames. Lot’s family are allowed to survive if they leave and not look back.
If the angels and God’s visit sound odd, guess what happens next? Once again Abraham openly claims Sarah is his sister to ward off being killed as the Philistine King has Sarah brought to court. But God warns the king him in a dream that he and his family will die if he touches Sarah because she is married to Abraham. The king asks Abraham why he did this to him. Abraham gave the same reason he had in Egypt that he would be killed for his wife. The king gives Sarah back. He also gives Abraham riches and lets him settle anywhere he wants in Philistine. Abraham successfully prays for the king and his family and the ailments they have are cured. Then, except for some later water disputes which they work out they all get along peacefully.
After that strange set of events, Sarah finally gives birth to a son, Isaac. When Isaac is weaned birthright conflicts regarding Ishmael, his half brother boil over, and they are not worked out. Reportedly God – under the old polytheistic name Elohim– okays Sarah and Abraham cruelly and callously dumping Hagar and Ishmael in the desert with a bag of water and bread. Hagar and Ishmael then wandered in the wilderness until the water was gone. As they prepared to die an angel appeared, water was provided, they are told Ishmael would become a great nation and Hagar and Ishmael survive to fulfill God’s promises.
After this horrid conduct by Abraham and Sarah their story begins to come to an end, with one more strange and terrible story. God – again under the old polytheistic name “Elohim” – commands Abraham to literally sacrifice his son Isaac. So we are told that Abraham took Isaac to a mountain to make a burnt offering. When Isaac asked about the sacrificial animal, Abraham told him God will provide a lamb for the offering. Before there can be a sacrifice of Isaac, God tells Abraham– this time under the monotheistic name YHWW to NOT hurt Isaac and sure enough YHWH provides a lamb for the offering.
This part of Abraham’s story is often read to be about obedience to God, regardless of the morality of the command. I find that a terrible reading not in line with YHWH as a loving God. I have mentioned before that there is another way to read it. We can understand it as Abraham disrupting the Ancient Near East polytheist gods call for human sacrifices of sons in times of crisis. Abraham alters this awful practice by listening to YWHW the monotheistic God-of-all who desires the well being of all and ends human sacrifices. (Interestingly some scholars even suggest that circumcision is a compromise that Abraham came up with where only a part of the son is sacrificed).
After Isaac and Abraham sacrifice the lamb, they come off the mountain and go to Beersheba. As the story closes Sarah dies first and is buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Believe it or not Abraham remarries and has six more children with his second wife, Keturah. He lives long enough to also see Isaac marry Rebekah, and to see his grandchildren Jacob and Esau. Abraham is 175 when he dies and his sons Ishmael and Isaac bury him with Sarah.
In this rather quick recounting of the big picture of Abraham and Sarah’s narrative we can hear it is full of ups and downs and good and bad and questionable behavior by Abraham and Sarah– and even by the God imagined by humans in the story. While the events are strange, the pattern of ups and downs and good and questionable behavior is not. That’s the life pattern for most of us. Not living in the context of Bible times we may not understand all of the story but we can learn from it. We discover the god news that ordinary people are God’s chosen and called and that God calls and sides with those any culture looks down upon and oppresses. Not only that, God does not give up on or un-call or un-love people who listen even if they make mistakes, no matter how big.
God soaks every nook and cranny of Abraham and Sarah’s life. Indeed, God soaks the story itself calling out to humans for 4,000 years to long for well being. Like God in the story as listeners we side with the oppressed and abused. For every badness we want goodness. For every goodness we cheer. We want elderly Sarah and Abraham to be valued and honored and have well being and even adventures in autumn of their lives. We want Abraham to not be killed and we want Sarah not to be taken into harems. We even want the kings and their families to not be plagued. We want Sarah and Abraham to have the children they long for, and land and other blessings from God. We want visitors to be treated with hospitality and violence and inhospitable conduct to the stop and that there be consequences for bad and good conduct– and chances for redemption and salvation. We want humans to be rescued from harm. We want well being for people in the story. We long for a God who wants that well being. And every step of the way no matter who is causing harm, God can be heard, in one form another, to step in and re-aim humans who are willing to listen toward well being, that’s shalom, that’s peace.
The overall arc of this narrative is that each person who listens and follows God’s call is led toward their own well being and the well being of others. This is a story of a God who is there to lead every listening Joe and Jane to well being, to shalom, to peace. That is why the story has been around for four thousand years. That is why it is foundational to three major world religions. That is why it matters still. See it’s a story that says humans are loved by an ever present God and that we matter much to that God. Not only that it is a story that teaches well being of others ought to matter to us . . . Seeing the big picture, we can understand it is a story about . . . love.