Genesis 18 – A Compassionate God

The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”

Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.

“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.

“There, in the tent,” he said.

10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”

13 Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

15 Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”

16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way. 17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous 21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

“If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”

33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.

First off, let’s just talk about how much flour three seahs is.  My NIV text notes tell me that’s 36 pounds!  Abraham made a ton of food.  Also, let’s talk about how long this must have taken.  If Sarah and her household have to prepare bread (which takes a few hours to knead and rise and bake), as well as slaughter and dress an animal (by hand) as well as cook it?  Hours.  So I’m thinking, if these guys came in the heat of the day, in other words mid-afternoon, they must have stayed until well into the evening.  Basically, Abraham had a dinner party with God, which is kind of cool.

But what I want to talk about a little more today is yet another example of God’s compassion.  I was always taught that the God of the Old Testament was an angry and punitive God.  For sure, there is a fair amount of punishment that goes on in the Old Testament, but even more than that there is compassion.  Again, the punishment that happens is more that of a parent correcting a child than a spiteful king condemning an unfortunate subject: He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, but made sure they were clothed and continued to check in on them and their descendants; He set a mark on Cain so no one could further persecute him; instead of completely obliterating mankind through the flood He saved us through Noah and his family; instead of striking mankind down completely at the Babel he simply confused their plans and redirected them.  See what I mean?

Spoiler alert – Sodom and Gomorrah are about to be destroyed.  But Abraham doesn’t know this yet.  He is distressed that good people might pay the price of the wicked if God obliterates these cities.  Once again, my NIV footnotes put it beautifully: “Abraham’s questioning in vv. 23-32 did not arise from a spirit of haggling but of compassion for his relatives and of wanting to know God’s ways.  Perhaps Abraham stopped at ten because he had been counting while praying.”

And the amazing thing: God says yes to sparing the whole wicked land if there are just ten good people there.  What wonders a few good people can achieve without even realizing their impact!  Simply by existing, ten people would have saved two entire cities.

There may be some who counter this argument by saying “So where is God now in Syria? Or Yemen? Or Somalia? Aren’t there at least ten good people there?” And I unfortunately have nothing but the cold comfort of history to offer them.  Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed thousands of years ago: that story is finished and easy to be seen both historically and allegorically.  As to current or recently ended conflicts (and I’m including things like the Civil and Revolutionary Wars in recently ended conflicts), we are still in the middle of that unfolding story.  These stories are not finished:  We have people who can trace their lineage back to slaves in the 18th century (or earlier), veterans of World War II still living, refugees from Syria seeking asylum.  It is too raw, we are too invested, to gain any allegorical wisdom from these more current events. God’s plan is still unfolding.

That doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and just say about every bad thing “it must be God’s plan.”  We should fight where we see injustices, and be living examples of God’s compassion.  This country has a lot of healing still left to do from it’s history of slavery and it’s historical exploitation of Native Americans. We can’t bring back the literally millions of people killed, but we can make space for their descendants at the table.  We can also welcome the asylum seekers who call for help at our borders. We can advocate for alternative energy, which would lessen our reliance on oil and stop adding fuel to the fire of oil-related conflicts in the Middle East but also in our own country.

What I’m saying is, we’re still living these stories.  My ardent hope is that in several hundred years we, too, can be an allegorical as well as historical story.  I hope future historians can say “The USA’s first three centuries were marred by social inequalities of almost every kind.  But the country has been a leader in global peace for just as long.”  Or perhaps they’ll say, “Global unrest was driven by a reliance upon fossil fuels in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Through the dedicated work of scientists and social activists, fossil fuels haven’t been used in over 100 years.”

One thing we can learn is from this is that I’m clearly not cut out to be a news writer.  But if you can get past my hokey headline-writing skills, just remember that these are the outcomes we are fighting for.  We are the instruments of God’s compassion.  Abraham was an advocate for the righteous in a wicked world.  Let us be the same, today.

Genesis 10 – Creating a Legacy of Good

This is the account of Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah’s sons, who themselves had sons after the flood.

The sons of Japheth:

Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshek and Tiras.

The sons of Gomer:

Ashkenaz, Riphath and Togarmah.

The sons of Javan:

Elishah, Tarshish, the Kittites and the Rodanites. (From these the maritime peoples spread out into their territories by their clans within their nations, each with its own language.)

The sons of Ham:

Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan.

The sons of Cush:

Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah and Sabteka.

The sons of Raamah:

Sheba and Dedan.

Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; that is why it is said, “Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The first centers of his kingdom were Babylon, Uruk, Akkad and Kalneh, in Shinar.]11 From that land he went to Assyria, where he built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah 12 and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah—which is the great city.

13 Egypt was the father of

the Ludites, Anamites, Lehabites, Naphtuhites, 14 Pathrusites, Kasluhites (from whom the Philistines came) and Caphtorites.

15 Canaan was the father of

Sidon his firstborn, and of the Hittites, 16 Jebusites, Amorites,Girgashites, 17 Hivites, Arkites, Sinites, 18 Arvadites, Zemarites and Hamathites.

Later the Canaanite clans scattered 19 and the borders of Canaan reached from Sidon toward Gerar as far as Gaza, and then toward Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha.

20 These are the sons of Ham by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

21 Sons were also born to Shem, whose older brother was Japheth; Shem was the ancestor of all the sons of Eber.

22 The sons of Shem:

Elam, Ashur, Arphaxad, Lud and Aram.

23 The sons of Aram:

Uz, Hul, Gether and Meshek.

24 Arphaxad was the father of Shelah,

and Shelah the father of Eber.

25 Two sons were born to Eber:

One was named Peleg, because in his time the earth was divided; his brother was named Joktan.

26 Joktan was the father of

Almodad, Sheleph, Hazarmaveth, Jerah, 27 Hadoram, Uzal, Diklah,28 Obal, Abimael, Sheba, 29 Ophir, Havilah and Jobab. All these were sons of Joktan.

30 The region where they lived stretched from Mesha toward Sephar, in the eastern hill country.

31 These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations.

32 These are the clans of Noah’s sons, according to their lines of descent, within their nations. From these the nations spread out over the earth after the flood.

Look at all these people that spread out from Noah and his sons.  The whole of the Mediterranean world is listed here: Egyptians;  Philistines; the “bad” lands of Sodom and Gomorrah and the “good” lands of Ophir; maritime peoples that went even further abroad than any of their cousins.  I used to think of  these genealogies as just names to be skimmed over, of no interest except to a handful of dusty scholars.  But if you think about it, this lineage is truly awe-inspiring.  God blessed Noah, and his descendants filled the land.

I’m reading a book right now, Original Blessing by Matthew Fox, and in it he warns of the dangers of a religion that is too introspective.  If we focus upon ourselves too much, even if it is in self-reflection and self-study, we lose touch with the whole of the wonderful cosmos that our God has made.  We are too busy contemplating our own soul, missing it’s connection to our world and our fellow man.  We become blind to beauty and injustices alike.  We can see the importance of connection and bigger pictures here, in this chapter: Noah is pivotal to the story, but he’s just the beginning.  His three sons were fruitful and multiplied, and then those sons multiplied, and the ripple effect went on and on.  I think we need to remember that about ourselves, too.  Of course we’re going to be the most important character in our own stories, but we need to also remember that the story continues without us.  We don’t just end, but send our own ripple effects out past our limited reach.  It’s important to remember the fuller picture.

I am still angry about the Nathan Phillips/Covington Catholic Schoolboys incident as I write this.  I keep hearing people say “wait for the fuller picture,” or “there are two sides to every story,” or “Russia is using our outrage to erode our democracy.”  I am in a very privileged position of knowing some of the people involved.  Chris has met Mr. Phillips; I first saw the raw video of this confrontation on my newsfeed taken by a person I know who was actually there.  So I believe them when they say it was ugly. What I think people have lost sight of is the basic storyline: A teenager disrespected an elder.  Let’s make it even more basic than that: A human being disrespected another human being.  And I won’t be gas-lighted into believing otherwise.

When people say “wait for the fuller picture,” etc, etc, I think they have already lost sight of the fuller picture.  Put yourself in front of that smirking child and Lord of the Flies crowd backing him up.  Put your wife there, your daughter.  Now how do you feel about it? I certainly wouldn’t want to be in Mr. Phillip’s position there. I am not condoning violence upon this boy or his peers, no sane person is.  What I, and others like me, want, is for them to realize they were in the wrong, apologize, and more than anything, grow from it.  I want this child to grow from it. We all make mistakes, but if no lesson is learned, we – both individually and as a larger society – gain nothing.

What ripple effects can you start today?  We may not be destined to fill the Earth with our grandchildren, but we can fill the Earth with our good works.  Make an effort to reach out beyond yourself today.  Drop some canned goods off at your local food bank.  Ask your child’s teacher if there is anything they are lacking this second semester – can you buy it for them?  Call your representative on behalf of furloughed federal employees and contractors (thank you!).  Don’t stand by silently if something makes you uncomfortable, stand up for those being wronged.  Creating larger waves of good is the only way we are going to smooth over the ripple effects of negative behavior.  So today I challenge you to look beyond yourself.  What will be your legacy?

Genesis 06 – Noah, the Ordinary Man

When human beings began to increase in number on the earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of humans were beautiful, and they married any of them they chose.Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

This is the account of Noah and his family.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. 10 Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth.

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence.12 God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. 13 So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. 14 So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. 15 This is how you are to build it: The ark is to be three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high.16 Make a roof for it, leaving below the roof an opening one cubit high all around. Put a door in the side of the ark and make lower, middle and upper decks. 17 I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. 19 You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. 20 Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and of every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. 21 You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”

22 Noah did everything just as God commanded him.

There are two parts of to this chapter: Verses 1-7 describe the way the world was around the time of Noah: man’s lifespan getting shorter (their days shall number 120 years, verse 3), Nephilim roaming the earth (we’ll get to them in a moment), and general wickedness.  The second part of this chapter is the beginning of the flood story, where Noah is identified as “a righteous man” (6:9) and given instructions for the ark.

I think verses 1-7 almost sounds like a prologue out of Lord of the Rings.  I wonder how much of a Bible reader Tolkien was.  The language sounds like something the Elves would say. “For man is mortal” (6:3) and “his heart was deeply troubled” (6:6) are both lines also said in one of the movies, I’m pretty sure.  Also, this prologue has an epic cast of characters, even if they are only alluded to: the sons of God, beautiful daughters of Man, heroes of old, men of renown, Nephilim.  And who are these Nephilim?  There are two schools of thought: One is that they were fully human, and it was a way to describe kings, who often achieved demi-god status in the eyes of men at this time.  Second, is that they are fallen angels (or the offspring of fallen angels) who intermarried with mankind.  Either way, they were seen as big, strong, important beings.  Some even translate the word to mean “giants.”  Was there a race of giants roaming the Earth during Genesis? Perhaps there were a few: the Anakites mentioned later are also described as giants.  Whether this means they were actually “giants” or just unusually big, strong people we may never know, but clearly the author sees them as exceptional.

But the question here is, what does this have to do with Noah, and why, out of all the details that could be shared in a prologue, are these the ones being shared with us?  The “wickedness of the human race” (6:5) is shown in contrast to Noah’s righteousness.  That makes sense.  But I think these Nephilim and the other epic characters mentioned are to contrast Noah’s ordinariness. Yes, he was the grandson of Enoch, who walked with God, but other than that, Noah was just an everyday Joe.  He was not a giant, he was not a king.  He was just a man.

I’m going to jump ahead here because there’s a New Testament quote I love. Luke 6-7 reads: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”  God sees us, God loves us, and through Him we are made special, just like Noah.  God selected Noah, out of all the people that could have been picked to build the ark.  Surely these strong Nephilim could have built it bigger and faster.  Kings could have built God a fleet of ships, had He so chosen.  But Noah, just a sparrow of a man compared to these others, was the one righteous enough to save.

It’s comforting and sobering at the same time.  The comfort of it is: we matter. Every single one of us matters.  It doesn’t make a difference how unimportant we seem in the grand scheme of things: social status, wealth – none of that makes us more or less precious to God.  The sobering part is: we are all equally responsible for our actions.  Again, kings could have changed whole policies that would have made society less wicked.  Government worked a little different back then, but decrees outlawing whatever the wickedness was at that time (I’m guessing prostitution, greed that led widows and orphans to abject poverty, murder) would have been an effective start, as would a task force of dedicated Nephilim enforcing said decrees.  But even if that had happened, that doesn’t get the little guys, like you and me and Noah, off the hook.  Regardless of the law of the land, we still have a responsibility to God to be “righteous.”

I actually hate that word.  It sounds elitist and judge-y. Which is too bad, because that’s not really what it means, or what it should mean.  If we are righteous, we are decent and virtuous, which still sounds a little puritanical, but better.  What it boils down to is that we just need to be good people.  That is hard sometimes. But more than that, it’s scary sometimes.  It means going against the grain of society.  Noah and his family were the only “righteous” ones left around, according to this story.  You don’t think it got them a few sideways looks? It also means doing things that go against good sense.  Noah built an ark in the desert.  Tithing when I worry about money every month doesn’t make sense either, but it works (as an aside, I found the exact tithing amount needed for this month when doing a deep clean of our bedroom last week).

Scariest of all, being righteous, being a good person, means we are open to hearing God’s call, and sometimes it can mean taking on something greater than we ever thought we’d have to do.  I doubt God will call upon you to build an ark, but even people who feel called to do something can testify to how difficult it is sometimes.  The pastor of the current church I go to said he wrestled with the decision to become a minister for years before finally doing it.  I felt called to start this farm.  Most of the time I feel great, but there are definitely moments where I look around and think, “what the flying fuck was I thinking?!”

So, it can be scary to be a good person.  But lest I scare you completely off, know that God is there, and He sees you, down to the very hairs of your head.  Knowing that you are cherished so can make it a little easier in those hard and scary times to carry on.  So please, if you only take one thing from this, know that you are loved. To God, you are not only more precious than many sparrows, but more precious than the heroes of old, the men of renown, even the giant Nephilim.  You, no matter ordinary, are loved above all.