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The Mystery of Salvation as Seen in Genesis 24
The debate between the doctrines of free will and predestination still rage as they have for years. Some believe God’s sovereignty overrules human free will in all regards; some only in the matter of salvation (i.e., man is inherently evil and unable to initiate the salvation process with God). Yet others believe God has truly given us free will – including the ability to reject Him. That argument is that if we do not come to God by our own free will, we are ‘robots’ and true love is not illustrated in the relationship. Many of us we struggle with this because somehow both predestination and free will appear to be at work simultaneously.
In the story of Rebkah’s betrothal, we see symbolic elements foreshadowing future events. This betrothal scene is unique when compared to others in scripture, as the bridegroom is not physically present (as was the case with Jacob, Moses, etc.). Here, Isaac is the bridegroom, who, as a type of substitute sacrifice, is a picture of the Christ. His bride-to-be, Rebekah, represents the church; in the New Testament scriptures the church is referred to as the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-33)
Isaac’s absence is fitting; the church becomes engaged, so to speak, with Christ while we are still here on earth; He is to be our new master though we will not see His face until the marriage is consummated. The question at hand is, was Rebekah given a choice to marry Isaac?
Abraham’s servant had concerns that she might not:
“Suppose the woman is not willing to follow me to this land; should I take your son back to the land from where you came?” (Gen. 24:5)
This phrase was echoed again when re-telling the narrative to Laban in v. 39. So Abraham made a provision just in case she would not:
“…if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath;” (Gen. 24:8)
If everything was completely pre-ordained, did the oath the servant took mean anything? That is to say, if it was all going to come to pass exactly as God planned, what was the point of an oath? If there is no free will, no chance the potential bride may refuse the offer, then the oath is in vain; it’s importance greatly diminished.
But, what are the chances that the very first people the servant meets end up being the people he was seeking, after traveling hundreds of miles toward the city of Nahor? The servant specifically acknowledges this in v. 48:
“And I bowed low and worshiped the LORD, and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had guided me in the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son”
And so it is obvious that some elements of the story appear to be divinely arranged; and divine favor was given on the assistance for signs to the servant. One thing that is fascinating is that the blessing given to Rebekah by her family (her offspring possessing the gates of their enemies) perfectly echoes the promises given to Abraham. In this sense we see that the marriage appears pre-arranaged by God.
So all of this leads up in anticipation of what Rebekah’s answer will be directly from her mouth when the question is asked. Unfortunately this never actually happens. Instead, the family willingly gives her away without even asking her:
““Here is Rebekah before you, take her and go” (v. 51)
The answer eludes us as to whether or not Rebekah actually had any choice in the matter!
After this, the servant blesses the Lord and the exchange is made, gifts are given and the marriage is now on. In those days, once a marriage was arranged, it was customary for the woman to spend approximately one final year with her family before going off to marry her new husband. Though the translation is not completely obvious, the family suggests that Rebekah stay for “ten days”, however given the context and what we know of the time, we ascertain this actually means ten months – hence, slightly less than the standard yearlong wait. The servant will have none of it; it appears it is either now or never, as he replies:
“Do not delay me, since the LORD has prospered my way. Send me away that I may go to my master.” (v. 56)
Laban then decides to consult Rebekah to make or break the deal. Will she go so suddenly, leaving her family and home behind to marry a man she’s only heard about and never met? Now we see the element of free will appear to come into play, as they ask Rebekah her choice. In the original Hebrew, her answer is more telling than the standard translations. Her response isn’t just “I will go”, but rather defiantly, such as “I will go whether you like it or not, you can’t stop me!”
So is this free will manifesting itself? Or is the spirit inside of Rebekah pulling her along to her pre-ordained fate – to marry Isaac, to become one of the progenitors of the Israelites and ultimately a prophetic picture of the church?
Perhaps it is not so much mystery as it is paradox. The reason that the arguments are just as heated today as ever between free will and predestination is because depending on how you read the narrative, you can effectively make the case for either one. Yet both are present, simultaneously and without conflict.
“Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you will go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”” Gen. 24:2-4
Though Abraham has lived among the Canaanites for some time now, and the land of Canaan is, in essence, the “Promised Land”, Abraham is adamant about not taking a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. Also, God called Abraham to leave his family and his homeland, but this is where Abraham wants Isaac’s wife to be from. Why is this?
First we must realize that the scriptures do not reveal all dealings between God and humanity to us. For example, Cain and Abel brought offerings to God long before it was prescribed, and Abraham built altars before any written instruction to do so is given. Thus we can likely infer that God has, in fact, imparted such commandments to the patriarchs even though it is not recorded.
That said, the answer as to why Abraham is so vehement about Isaac’s wife being from his own people probably lies in Deuteronomy 7:
“Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. “For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you.” (Deut. 7:3-4)
“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” (Deut. 7:6)
Another thing to note, however, is that Abraham’s own family dabbled in false idols. Consider that Abraham’s father Terah served other Gods (see Joshua 24:4). Also we see Laban has idols of his own (Gen. 31:19). Thus, the issue of false gods cannot be the sole problem. For one, there is a difference between serving other gods and turning someone away to follow such gods once they are already following the one true God. R’ Hirsch speaks of idolatry being an intellectual condition which can be changed, whereas in the case of the Canaanites, et. al, the overall more degeneracy was too much to overcome.
“So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.” Gen. 22:3
First we note Abraham rising early, which appears to be his custom, at least when God is involved (see Gen. 19:27; 21:14; 22:3)
What we may also miss is that Abraham seems to be doing all these miscellaneous chores himself. Abraham is about to make a three-day journey. He has servants; he will be bringing two of them with him. Why is Abraham saddling his donkey? Why is he the one splitting the wood? It may be that he is just a kind master and doesn’t mind doing some things himself, but surely he has a lot on his mind. Perhaps Abraham feels he must go through all the steps of this act himself, to ensure no guilt is upon anyone else.
Abraham brings wood because he does not know if the place he is going will have wood available (Plaut). However he does not bring an animal, because he must believe Isaac is to be the sacrifice.
As Abraham is making all these preparations, what was he thinking about? Could Jehova, this God who called Abraham to Canaan and away from his fathers house of idols (see Joshua 24:2) and revealed wondrous promises to him, could this God be just like the gods of his fathers, who demanded human sacrifice? Could this awful thing be true? If this is the case, Abraham would have to make a choice if he would obey and follow such a God. Perhaps Abraham was testing God at the same time. “Will this God I’ve been following that purports to be the one true God, give me such wondrous promises but yet dash my hope to pieces by the murder of my miraculous son, by my own hands, the very son through whom such wondrous promises are to come?”
Or did Abraham trust God much more than that?
“Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day, as God had said to him.” Gen. 17:23
“In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael his son.” Gen. 17:26
Note the immediacy of Abraham’s obedience to God’s request for circumcision – the very same day, as soon as “God went up” from him. Some translations may not be clear on this, and instead sound as if all of the circumcisions were completed on the same day, but that was not necessarily the same day God spoke to Abraham, however the original language seems to support the idea that Abraham’s obedience was immediate.
We would do well to obey God quickly, especially when we may dread the thought of fulfilling His request. In this case, circumcision would likely have been both a painful and frightening prospect – a medical procedure done with somewhat primitive tools – yet the wise reaction would be to fulfill the request before we have much time to think about it. To quote Matthew Henry, “While the command is yet sounding in our ears, and the sense of duty is fresh, it is good to apply ourselves to it immediately, lest we deceive ourselves by putting it off to a more convenient season.”
Bear in mind Isaac will not be born for about another year (v. 21) yet Abraham does not use this as an excuse to put off the circumcision. This also tells us that quick obedience on our part does not necessarily ensure God’s promises will be brought about quickly – God still works on his own timing. This way God can ensure we are obeying for the sake of obedience, and not simply in exchange for a fulfillment of a promise.
We must also consider that Abraham was called to do this not only to himself and his son Ishmael, but to all male members of his household. How did he gain such consent? One may consider it could have been done by force, but I would offer that his servants allowed him to do it. Why? Because Abraham is a man of God living a godly life and has been for at least 24 years now (Abraham was 75 when he left Haran and is 99 at this point.) His men have already risked their lives following him into battle just to save his nephew Lot. Jewish tradition holds that Abraham was well-respected in his household and was likely a teacher of the ways of God to his servants (see my previous posting about this here).
How respected and trusted does a man need to be for one to allow him to do such a thing to him as circumcision? Very respected and trusted indeed!
“No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Gen. 17:5
“Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.”” Gen. 17:15
It is generally thought that the name Abram means “exalted father”, which he becomes, in a sense, through his many descendants. However, a name change in scripture is indicative of a change in fate (Fox, Five Books of Moses) and so the new name Abram receives is more likely to illustrate who he will become, whereas his current name would be descriptive of his life up until that point.
Plaut (The Torah, A Modern Commentary) notes that Abram is likely a contraction of Abi-ram, which means “My father is exalted”. This is a more significant rendering, as it tells us that Abram exalted God. And so the exalting of God was a precursor to the change in destiny he receives with his new name.
Similarly, the general thought is that the name Abraham means “father of a multitude” though it technically does not trace back or translate to that. The Hebrew language uses many puns, most of which we do not pick up on once translated. In this case it is probably what is occurring, as the phrase “father of a multitude” is av-rav-‘am, which is likely where the current understanding of Abraham’s name comes from.
As we see in verse 15, Sarai also receives the new name of Sarah, which denotes royalty and is believed to mean “princess”. This is fitting as we are told in Gen. 17:16 that “kings of peoples will come from her.” Sarah is also the only woman in the bible to receive a new name by God. Sarai and Sarah both mean princess, though the scope of what she is a princess of has expanded.
At first it may not seem noteworthy that both Abraham and Sarah had the letter “H” added to their previous names, however as Plaut notes, the Hebrew “h” with an abbreviation sign stands for “God” in Hebrew writings. So this seemingly mundane change is significant – the addition of the “h” to their names represents the presence of God in their lives from here on.
“Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before Me and be blameless.” Gen. 17:1
The name “God Almighty” is often translated from the Hebrew name for God “El Shaddai”. When we read this in common English translations, the title “God Almighty” may cause us to think it refers to God being ‘all-powerful’. While this is not untrue – God is all-powerful – another interpretation shows us that there is much more to Hebrew language and thought. According to Rashi, the Hebrew for Shaddai (she-dai) could be understood as “I am the One whose divinity is sufficient to all creation.”
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” Gen. 15:1
We do not know how much time passes between Abram’s meeting with Melchizedek in Genesis 14 and this vision God gives him here in Chapter 15, and as such we do not know exactly what is on Abram’s mind that he may be fearful of to the extent that God consoles him. If we take the position that not much time has passed, one would think the obvious concern of Abram stem from the fact that he and his men just attacked four armies in their sleep and made off with the prisoners of war and the spoils, thus he may be concerned about revenge being plotted against him. However valid a concern this would be to someone in Abram’s position, based on what follows in the narrative such revenge by the kings does not seem to be his primary worry.
God fully knows our hearts and Abram is no different. And so God, in this conversation with Abram addresses what is most pressing on Abram’s mind: he has no heir. This is compounded by the fact that he is getting old, and his wife appears to be barren. So on one hand, Abram has the promises of God that he will be made into a great nation (Gen. 12:2) and that he will inherit the Promised Land (Gen. 12:7), but as anyone in Abram’s circumstances would, he is having difficulty believing that these things will come to pass because he cannot conceive of how God can make this happen. We are guilty of this quite often ourselves – God may give us a promise but with our simple human perception and understanding, we fail to see how things will manifest . Further, Abram does not see fit that his heir would not be a natural child as opposed to a servant such as Eliezer of Damascus.
God then allays Abram’s fear by showing him the stars and likening that to the amount of descendants Abram will have, however Abram already has a second concern: “O Lord God, how may I know that I will possess it?” (speaking of the Promised Land). And so Abram is not so different from us; we have concern on top of concern, and even with God Himself reassuring us in one area, that causes questions about another area we are worried about – but God again gives Abram assurance through a vision. This vision is not a pleasant one, as terror and great darkness fell upon Abram, (Gen. 15:12) however God is God, and as such knows the future, and reassures Abram that though his descendants will suffer enslavement they will ultimately possess the land. This is done in true prophetic fashion, as the opening verse to the chapter could be translated as “The word of the Eternal came to Abram” which is a phrase that is not used again until we get to the books of the prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah.
The chapter ends with God accepting Abram’s sacrifice, declaring a covenant with Abram of what has been promised concerning the land, and listing the ten peoples who will ultimately be defeated or displaced as the Israelites possess the Promised Land.
Our grandfather Adam was given blessing through no merit of his own; he was created by God, and placed in the perfect beauty of God’s garden in complete innocence. There was never a time when Adam did not know God. Noah, on the other hand, was found to be a righteous man who walked with God, and thus preserved humanity through the flood. The recorded interaction between God and Noah occurs when Noah is 600 years old. The beginning of Abram’s story is different still.
Abram was not born into an ideal situation such as Adam; nor was he referred to as righteous in the eyes of God like Noah initially. Abram was born in Ur of the Chaldeans, an idolatrous land, with a father who practiced idolatry (Joshua 24:2). And though Abram was 75 years old when our story starts, he has not at this point proven himself righteous as far as we know, but rather he receives a seemingly random calling from God, along with promises for following that calling. Though it is somewhat late in his life (as life spans have been drastically since both the flood and the dispersion) Abram is just beginning a new journey by this calling of God.
There is a strong thread of consistency among the stories of Adam, Noah and Abram: Request for Obedience. Adam with the single command not to eat of the fruit, Noah to build the ark in light of the coming judgment, and Abram to simply “go”. Adam was given his command with the simple instruction that if he failed to obey he would surely die, though we don’t know if Adam had a full comprehension of how God meant it. With Noah, the commands given were extremely specific for the building of the ark, and God chose to reveal information about his coming judgment in detail to Noah as well, though God does not give much detail about the end result of the flood, other than everything and everyone being dead. Noah himself isn’t specifically told he will survive.
With Abram, it is a simple , though difficult, calling: to go. Where? “To the land which I will show you” (Gen. 12:1) Why? No specific reason is given as to why Abram should go at this point; only promises given by God concerning future blessings if he obeys. God asked Abram to do three things, (really just one – to leave) and offered 7 promises in return for obedience. These promises are very large in scope and borderline unbelievable to a 75 year old man, and are, in a sense, a revelation hinging upon his obedience. To be made into a nation? Divine protection and blessings? And then when Abram takes that step and goes to Canaan, God adds another promise “To your descendants I will give this land.” How? The text tells us just before this that “the Canaanite was in the land.”
The revelation of these promises to Abram of a bright and wonderful future are in stark contrast to the revelation of utter destruction given to Noah with no certain promise concerning the future. In all, a cycle is formed: Through Adam, a beginning; through Noah, a judgment and ending; and through Abram, yet a new beginning. Thus, through the righteous, the chosen are saved. Righteous Noah acted as a savior for the people and animals from Adam until now that God had chosen. In a spiritual interpretation, we see Jesus as the righteous savior, saving the chosen children of faith of Abraham.
There are interesting parallels that can be drawn of the people from Nimrod’s time and the people of today. Men – cities and countries of men – are largely godless and continually strive to make a name for themselves. A modern-era example in America would be the NASA space program. The primary purpose of the government space program may be scientific, yes; but consider the great propulsion of national pride behind it. The desire to ‘make a name for ourselves’ as evidenced by the space race. Another example may be the current trend of places like Dubai and their extreme expenditure of wealth, largely for pleasure-oriented things.
And as for solidarity, on the level of the country we speak of things like the missle shield for protection, whereas at the planet-level we dream of a future asteroid shield to save us from a life-ending threat. You could view this as our fear of being ‘scattered’. And as we live in a day and age where almost the entire world is interconnected and globalized, even among warring nations there remains a general concern for the overall safety and survival of humankind from global extinction and even large scale catastrophes. We are willing to band together, and have a strong desire to do so in times of crisis or perceived crisis. This trait of humanity itself is not bad or sinful; it merely shows the face of fear in the people, and counter to that, their hope and determination that they can and will overcome whatever the threat is.
The problem with this behavior during Nimrod’s time was that God had promised the man Noah, and his children just two generations ago, after the flood, that He would not flood the earth or destroy every living thing again. God also acknowledged the inherent wicked tendencies of mankind, and still purposed not to destroy us. He even blessed Noah and his children. And so rather than live in the comfort of those promises of God, the people of Nimrod’s time showed by their actions that they either did not know God or they did not trust God and instead saw Him as an enemy in some way. This is much like the people of today, thousands of years later. Many do not know God, and many who believe in him choose not to worship him over our human-based emotional concerns, not realizing that His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways our not our ways (Isaiah 55:8).
It is intriguing to me how the opinion of antiquity was that Nimrod incited the people to war against God, seeking revenge for the flood (though it is not strongly alluded to in the text.) Even if they did not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the sages of old could not deny the parallels of their understanding with what ultimately plays out at the end, which had the same general cause behind it: The people being incited against God:
“When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison, and will come out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together for the war; the number of them is like the sand of the seashore. And they came up on the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, and fire came down from heaven and devoured them.” (Rev. 20:7-9)