10 August 2013

Listening to a Bible study about Abraham...

I'm enjoying being back in our home church as these summer weeks draw to a close and school starts and we start traveling to visit those who partner with us in ministry.

Last month, we listened to a challenging study on Abraham, one that really started "in between" the texts of Genesis 16 and Genesis 17.

In Genesis 16, Abram takes Hagar as a second wife. Hagar becomes pregnant and the chapter finishes with this sentence: "And Abram [was] fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram."(vs 16).

The words immediately following that sentence, the beginning of Chapter 17 starts with "And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I [am] the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him..." (vs 1-3a).

What struck me is that during the Bible study that evening, a chunk of the discussion kept coming back to God's silence to Abram in the 13 years between the closing moments of Chapter 16 and the opening seconds of Chapter 17. The first question, in fact, was "Why do you think God was silent?" 

It may very well be the case that God was silent. The Bible talks of other periods of silence - the two that come readily to my mind are 1) the gap of time between the Old and New Testaments, and 2) Job's season of suffering where he begs to hear from God and he doesn't. So it isn't an unreasonable assumption or ginormous stretch of the imagination to make - the possibility that Abram did not hear from God during those thirteen years.

That night I started wondering, however, why. Why would we assume that because there are no biblical conversations recorded between Abram and the Lord in the biblical texts, that there were, in fact, definitively none? I asked my husband about a few hours later.

He just tends to think I'm a little weird when I start pursuing questions like this one.

But he did tell me to see what the big name commentators said.

They all seemed to believe, at least the ones that I found, just as was presented in church that night, that there was a 13 year silence. Many imply, indicate or downright indite Abraham - this 13 year silence was a consequence of his disobedience, lack of leadership and/or lack of faith as evidenced by taking Hagar as a second wife for the sake of becoming a father.

This still didn't sit right, intellectually or emotionally, with me. First, not having been there, I'd think we'd have to at least consider the other alternative (the God continued to interact with Abram) as equally plausible. Secondly, I'd be horrified to have people assume a similar truth about me - that just because it was written somewhere in black and white about my encounters and conversations and interactions with God - those encounters, conversations and interactions didn't occur.

My next brainstorm was to go back through the text of Genesis and see what words are used to describe God's interactions with Abram/Abraham. Here's what I found:
  • Genesis 12.1 - "The Lord said..."
  • Genesis 12.7 - "The Lord appeared..."
  • Genesis 13.5 - "and there Abram called upon the name of the Lord" (no mention of an answer)
  • Genesis 13.14 - "And the Lord said..."
  • Genesis 14.18* - "And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine."
  • Genesis 14.19* - "And he blessed him, and said..."
  • * {Included those two because many consider Melchizedek to be an Old Testament appearance of Christ.}
  • Genesis 15.1 - "The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision..."
  • Genesis 15.4 - "The word of the Lord [came] unto him saying..."
  • Genesis 15.5 - "And he[God] brought him[Abram] forth abroad, and said..."
  • Genesis 15.6- "He counted it to him for righteousness..."
  • Genesis 15.7 - "He said..."
  • Genesis 15.9 - "He said..."
  • Genesis 15.13 - "He said..." {after Abram had a deep sleep fall on him, followed by a horror of darkness}
  • Genesis 15.17 - "a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between..."
  • Genesis 15.18 - "the Lord made a covenant... saying..."
  • Genesis 17.1 - "the Lord appeared... and said..."
  • Genesis 17.3 - "God said..."
  • Genesis 17.9 - "Then God said..."
  • Genesis 17.15 - "God also said..."
  • Genesis 17.19 - "Then God said..." 
  • Genesis 18.1-2 - "The Lord appeared to Abraham... three men standing by..."
  • Genesis 18.5 - "...they answered."
  • Genesis 18.9 - "...they asked him."
  • ... and I could keep going on like this, all the way through Genesis 25, where Abraham's death is recorded.
But one other particular instance caught my eye. Genesis 21 ends with these words: "And Abraham sojourned in the Philistines' land many days." The very next verse, Genesis 22.1 says, "And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham..." which then leads into the account of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Once again we have a passage of time and no mention of the Lord interacting with Abraham during that season. The general consensus of those same commentators was that for a second time here, a significant  period of time had passes - Isaac had grown from a just weaned child into a young man. Yet nowhere do I find it implied that Abraham experienced God's silence, nor that the silence (if that was the case) was a disciplinary consequence for earlier disobedience.

So what's my whole point in going into all of this? 

Truthfully, I believe either alternative plausible; perhaps God left those details unrecorded because He wanted us to imagine the options and then meditate, think through each alternative and understand our absolute dependency upon Him to pull any meaning out of His Holy Scriptures. There could even be more possibilities than just the two that I've mentioned in this post! To me, that is part of the beauty of God's Word - so much is said that is unquestionable, black and white - yet at the same time defining principles (while the practices might look very different) that cover any situation man might run up against in this life. Yet at the same time, so much is left unsaid that, requiring us to flex and adapt and totally come to God when it comes to trying to understand Him and His Word.

It was/is my prayer - when I worked with Zarma women in literacy, when I encouraged and challenged local teachers trying to address the needs of exceptional students in their classrooms... that as I teach my own children, work with youth, teach Bible studies... that I make sure I include the option of possibilities when God's Word is not definitive.

Back to those years between Genesis 16 and 17... because now I'm curious...

Would you assume God's silence? 
If so, how do you interpret that silence? 
Do you assume continued interaction that just was not recorded? 
Or do you think that both are plausible and that God possibly has applications for us in either circumstance?
What possibility has occurred to you that I'm missing here?

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