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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Old Testament Tales - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
1. Why did Abram have a child with his wife’s handmaid?
2. How old was Ishmael when he was sent away from home?
3. What happened to Ishmael after he was sent away from home?
4. Did Ishmael and Isaac keep in touch with each other?
5. How many women bore children to Abraham?
6. When did Abram’s name get changed to Abraham?
7. How many times did God repeat his covenant to Abraham?
8. Who did Isaac marry?
9. What did Esau do wrong?
10. What is Jacob’s ladder?

Abram returned home after rescuing Lot from Chedorlaomar, and wondered why he still hadn’t got any of those divinely promised descendants. At this point, his wife suggests he try the traditional Egyptian solution, having a child by her servant Hagar (Genesis 16). According to the Bible, Abram is 86 years old when Ishmael is born and 100 at Isaac’s birth, making Ishmael clearly the older brother. (The age difference is small enough to be convincing, while Abram’s 86 years might mean two generations plus a bit.) The birth causes problems and jealousy of course, and when Sarah’s own son Isaac is born she soon persuades her husband to send the older boy (now 14 and technically adult) away with his mother. Lost in the desert, Hagar prays for aid (Genesis 21) and an angel leads her to water. Ishmael marries an Egyptian and becomes father to 12 tribes (Gen 17:20) while Isaac becomes grandfather to 12.

God’s promise was first made to Abram when He instructed him to move to Canaan (Gen 12:1-3). The promise is repeated (Gen 13:14-18) after Abram and Lot separate, and again (15:5), with all the ceremony of ancient covenants, when Abram ponders making an adopted slave his heir. Just before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God visits Abram to repeat his promise and change Abram’s name to Abraham—father of many nations. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah, and the tradition of circumcision is founded. Abraham laughs at the thought of another child; soon afterwards, Sarah laughs similarly, though her pregnancy is far from simple, accompanied by the destruction of Sodom and a journey to Gerar where Abraham again tries to pretend she’s his sister (Genesis 20).

With Ishmael temporarily out of the picture (though still in constant touch with the family—he returns for Abraham’s funeral (Gen 25:9) and his daughter marries Abraham’s grandson (Gen 28:9)), Abraham is “tempted” by God to sacrifice his “only” son (Gen 22). For Christians, the story prefigures the sacrifice of God’s son on the cross. For Muslims, it’s often told that Ishmael was the sacrifice. And for many the story tells how God provides, and how He does not desire the death of his children.

Abraham buys his first piece of property for Sarah’s tomb (Gen 23). He provides for his grieving son by finding a wife in his brother’s family (now living in Nahor, or Haran), then remarries (Keturah, Gen 25) and eventually dies, being buried in the same tomb. The new patriarch, Isaac, repeats his father’s trip to Gerar during a famine, claiming his wife is his sister (Gen 26). Such claims and alliances made over the digging of wells mirror non-biblical accounts of society at the time.

Isaac and Rebekah’s twin sons, Esau and Jacob, bicker from birth to adulthood, and God again chooses the younger son (just as he chose Isaac over Ishmael) for the continuation of the covenant. The older son, Esau, gives away his birthright in a non-binding argument over food, then marries outside the tribe, causing grief to his parents (Gen 26:34). Rebekah’s maneuvering results in Isaac blessing Jacob instead of Esau, after which Jacob runs away to his uncle’s family in Nahor. Esau stays home, effectively retaining the human birthright of inheritance, and even takes a third wife from Ishmael’s family to please his father (who insists Jacob must marry within the family). Meanwhile Jacob dreams of a ladder up to heaven and realizes God is guarding him. And rumors of Isaac’s imminent death prove unfounded.

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