Genesis: From Paradise to Patriarchs

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Preface to Genesis: from Paradise to Patriarchs

As the result of a tragic incident, a very young woman had a child out of wedlock. This child was given up for adoption, not to be seen or heard from for many years. As this woman entered the later years of her life, that son called her on an Easter weekend. When this mother and son met for the first time in many years, her son told her of the efforts he had expended to find her. His adoptive parents were wonderful, loving people, but he was compelled to meet his biological mother. He wanted to know from whence he had come, and the one who had begotten him.

This story could be repeated, in various forms, many times over. We all want to know where we have come from. Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus Christ have been adopted into the family of God. In biblical terms, we have been grafted into the life of the vine, and that vine is Israel (see Romans chapter 11). Our “roots” as Christians run very deep in Bible history. We should want to know where we have come from, and it is the Book of Genesis that describes these origins.

In Genesis, we find an account of the origin of our world, and of mankind (chapters 1 and 2). We find as well the origin of human depravity and sin in the “fall of man” depicted in Genesis chapter 3. We see its devastating effects in the wickedness of men and its dire consequences in the judgment of God in the curse (chapters 3 and 4), in the flood (chapters 6-9), in the confusion at Babel (chapter 11), and in the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah (chapters 18 and 19). We also see the grace of God in His provisions for man’s salvation, beginning with the promise of salvation in Genesis 3:15, being further evidenced in the ark and God’s covenant with Noah (chapters 6-9), in the rescue of Lot and his family (chapter 19), in the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3, etc.), and in the sojourn of Israel in Egypt (chapters 37ff.).

Genesis is not a “once upon a time” fairy tale. It is history, but written in such a way as to hold our attention throughout its 50 chapters. Let us approach this study with the enthusiasm it deserves. Let us listen and learn from whence we have come, as well as to learn more of that “paradise” to which all true Christians are destined.

I would suggest that before you begin to study this book (and these messages about it) in detail, you begin by sitting down and reading through the entire book, in one sitting if possible. It will be time well spent. And then I would urge you to pray that God would make the message and the meaning of this book clear to you, in a way that will be a part of the transformation of your life (see Ephesians 4:17-24). And when you pray, ask God that He would grant that you see more of Christ, for He is certainly to be found in this great book.

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1. A Walk Through the Book of Genesis


Perhaps the most forthright and concise introduction I have ever heard about is the one which Readers Digest tells us occurred at the men’s night meeting of the Philomathic Club. The speaker didn’t receive the usual flower phrases of introduction. Instead, the woman simply said, “Get up, Gilbert.” The speaker was none other than the woman’s husband.

I probably feel the same way about introductions as “Gilbert” does. I especially dislike the introduction that goes like this: “And now it is my pleasure to introduce a man who needs no introduction.”

With this message we are commencing a study of one of the great books of the Bible, the book of Genesis. It does need an introduction. Derek Kidner says of this book,

There can scarcely be another part of Scripture over which so many battles, theological, scientific, historical and literary, have been fought, or so many strong opinions cherished.1

Our attitudes and presuppostions which we bring to the book of Genesis will largely determine what we get from it. For this reason, we must devote our attention to some introductory matters.


The title “Genesis” is a transliteration of the Greek word which is the title of the book of Genesis in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Hebrew text, the word Bereshith, is the first word of the text, being translated, “in the beginning.”


J. Sidlow Baxter, in his excellent work, Explore the Book, sums up the difficulty of authorship by the question, “Is it Mosaic, or a mosaic?”2

That, in a nutshell, is the issue.

Traditionally, Moses has been held to be the author of Genesis over the centuries. A number of inferential evidences favor this conclusion.3 It would appear from a number of passages (e.g., Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Leviticus 1:1; 4:1; 6:1,8,19,24; 7:22,28, etc.) that Moses wrote the other books of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It would indeed be unusual for the first word of Exodus to be “and” unless Moses wrote it as well.

In the New Testament, our Lord seemingly attributes the Pentateuch to Moses (Matt 8:4; 19:7,8; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:3,4; Luke 5:14; 16:29,31; John 5:45,46; 7:22,23). Other New Testament writers follow this same approach (Acts 3:22, 13:39; Rom 10:5,19; I Cor 9:9; II Cor 3:15). It is therefore hard not to conclude that Moses wrote all the Pentateuch, in spite of no one air-tight statement to this effect.

Critics have not been content with this conclusion, however. Beginning with J. Astruc (1753),4 “scholars” have attributed this book to the work of an unknown redactor who skillfully compiled the writings of four or more editors. Generally the four primary sources are referred to as J, E, D, and P. J is the “Yahwist”; E, the “Elohist”; D is the work of the Deuteronomist; and P, the priestly document.

Several lines of evidence are given to support the Graf-Wellhausen or Documentary hypothesis. First would be the different names which are employed for God.5 For those who hold to the Documentary hypothesis, the change from Elohim to Yahweh signals a change of author. One major flaw in this approach is that within “E” passages the word Yahweh is also employed (e.g. Genesis 22:11, 14; 28:17-22) and vice-versa.

Secondly, we are pointed to different expressions referring to some act, such as that of making a covenant. “Cut a covenant,” “give a covenant,” and “establish a covenant”6 are variously employed, by the different authors of the Pentateuch. This leaves the author with no opportunity for stylistic change or for a change in the nuance of a word. One would hate to write under such restrictions today.

Thirdly, we are told that the Pentateuch contains “doublets,” that is duplicate accounts of the same event.7 One such instance would be the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. Worse yet are supposed “doublets” where there is any semblance of similarity between two accounts, such as Hagar’s two departures from home (Genesis 16, 21).

While multiple authorship8 or the use of existing documents9 should pose no great difficulty to the doctrine of the Bible’s inspiration and inerrancy, the Documentary hypothesis stands condemned on two counts. First, it is based upon the very thin ice of conjecture of scholars who are supposedly better informed than the author(s) of old; and secondly, it has placed most of the emphasis upon the isolation of fragments and their authors, rather than upon the interpretation of the text itself.10 They are more concerned about an alleged Redactor, than the Redeemer.

Thus, we must agree with the conclusion of Sir Charles Marston:

So J., E. and P., the supposed authors of the Pentateuch, are becoming mere phantom scribes and fetishes of the imagination. They have made Old Testament study unattractive, they have wasted our time, and they have warped and confused our judgments on outside evidence. It has been assumed that they possessed some sort of prescriptive right and authority superior to the Sacred Text. In the clearer light that Science is casting, these shadows that have dimmed our days of study and devotion are silently stealing away.11

The Outline of the Book of Genesis

Nearly every student of the book of Genesis agrees that it falls logically into two sections: chapters 1-11 and 12-50. The first eleven chapters focus upon the ever widening ruin of man, fallen from his created perfection and coming under the judgment of the Creator. Chapters 12-50 describe God’s ever narrowing program of man’s redemption.

The first division of the book, chapters 1-11, can be summarized by four major events: the creation (chapters 1-2), the fall (chapters 3-5), the flood (chapters 6-9), and the confusion of languages of the tower of Babel. The last division of Genesis, chapters 12-50, can be remembered by its four main characters: Abraham (12:1-25:18), Isaac (25:19-26:35), Jacob (27-36), and Joseph (37-50).

While there are more complicated schemes for the book, this simple outline should assist you to think in terms of the book as a whole. Every incident, every chapter should be understood as it contributes to the argument of the book.

The Importance of the Book of Genesis

A surveyor must always begin from a point of reference. So, too, history must start at some definite place of beginnings. The Bible is, through and through, a historical revelation. It is the account of God’s activity in history. As such, it must have a beginning. The book of Genesis gives us our historical point of reference, from which all subsequent revelation proceeds.

In this book we find the “roots” of the inhabited world and the universe, of man and nations, of sin and redemption. Also, we find the foundation of our theology. Fritsch, in The Layman’s Bible Commentary has referred to Genesis as “the starting point of all theology.”12 J. Sidlow Baxter has written,

The other writings of the Bible are inseparably bound up with it inasmuch as it gives us the origin and initial explanation of all that follows. The major themes of Scripture may be compared to great rivers, ever deepening and broadening as they flow; and it is true to say that all these rivers have their rise in the watershed of Genesis. Or, to use on equally appropriate figure, as the massive trunk and wide-spreading branches of the oak are in the acorn, so, by implication and anticipation, all Scripture is in Genesis. Here we have in germ all that is later developed. It has been truly said that “the roots of all subsequent revelation are planted deep in Genesis, and whoever would truly comprehend that revelation must begin here.”13

Genesis is particularly crucial in the light of the doctrine of progressive revelation. This doctrine attempts to define the phenomena which occurs in the process of divine revelation. Essentially initial revelation is general while subsequent revelation tends to be more particular and specific.

Let me try to illustrate progressive revelation by an examination of the doctrine of redemption. The first promise of redemption is definite but largely undefined in Genesis 3:15: “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Later in Genesis we learn that the world will be blessed through Abraham (12:3). The line through which Messiah would come was through Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau. Finally in Genesis we see that Israel’s coming ruler will be of the tribe of Judah: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes, and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (Genesis 49:10).

Later on we learn that Messiah will be the offspring of David (II Samuel 7:14-16), to be born in the city of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Literally hundreds of prophecies tell in greater detail, the coming of the Messiah.

The striking realization is that Genesis (and the Pentateuch) contain the broad outlines of virtually every major area of theology. For those of us who tend to lose our sense of perspective between fundamental and incidental truths, a study of Genesis will tend to remind us of those areas of theology which are most fundamental and foundational.

Genesis also sheds light on contemporary events. The bitter struggle which is currently going on in the Middle East is explained in the book of Genesis. Abram, who wanted to help God along with His plan, took matters into his own hands. The result was the birth of a child to Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar. The Arabs of today claim to have descended from Ishmael.14

The Interpretation of Genesis

Francis Schaeffer mentions four different interpretations of the Genesis account of creation:

For some this material is simply a Jewish myth, having no more historical validity for modern man than the Epic of Gilgamesh or the stories of Zeus. For others it forms a pre-scientific vision that no one who respects the results of scholarship can accept. Still others find the story symbolic but no more. Some accept the early chapters of Genesis as revelation in regard to an upper-story, religious truth, but allow any sense of truth in regard to history and the cosmos (science) to be lost.15

How one approaches the book of Genesis largely determines what they will get from its study. I would like to mention three methods of interpretation which we must avoid.

Neo-orthodox theologians are willing to grant that the Bible contains truth, but will not go so far as to accept it as the truth. They suspect that throughout its transmission down through the ages it has become something less than inspired and inerrant. These untrue accretions which have become mixed with biblical truth must be exposed and expunged. This process is referred to as demythologizing Scripture. The great difficulty is that man determines what is truth and what is fiction. Man is no longer under the authority of the Word, but is the authority over the Word.

A second method of interpretation is called the allegorical approach. This method is barely one step removed from demythologizing. The biblical account is not nearly so important as the “spiritual” message conveyed by the passage. The difficulty is that the “spiritual message” seems to differ with every individual, and it is not tied in with the historical-grammatical interpretation of the text. In popular group studies this usually fits under the heading of “what this verse means to me.” The interpretation of a text should be the same for a housewife or a theologian, a child or a mature Christian. The application may differ, but the interpretation, never!

Closely related to the allegorical method of interpretation is the typological approach. No one questions that the Bible contains types. Some of these types are clearly designated as such in the New Testament (Rom 5:14; Col 2:17; Heb 8:5, etc.). Other types can hardly be questioned, while not specifically labeled as such. For example, Joseph seems to be a clear type of Christ.

Oftentimes in my experience people have “found” types where they seem not to exist. While the meaning of such interpretation may be one that conforms to Scripture (or may be taught elsewhere), there is no way to prove or disprove the type. The more spiritual one is the more types he or she seems to find. And who can question them? But in this search for types, the plain and simple interpretation is obscured or overlooked. Let us exercise great caution here.

I would like to suggest that we approach the book of Genesis as the book presents itself to us. I believe the first verse makes clear the way we must approach the entire work.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Beside this verse I have written in the margin of my Bible, “This account either explains it all or it does not explain it at all.”

No, don’t tell me that I am seeing too much here. Some books begin, “… Once upon a time … ”

When we find such an introduction we immediately understand that we are reading a fairy tale. So also the conclusion, “… and they lived happily ever after.”

Genesis 1:1 is totally different. The mood is authoritative and declarative.

The claim implied by this verse is much like that of our Lord when He presented Himself to men. No one can logically tip their hat to Jesus Christ as a “good man,” “a wonderful example,” or a “great teacher,” He was either Who He claimed to be (the Messiah, the Son of God), or He was a fake and a fraud. There is no middle ground, no riding the fence with Jesus. Jesus does not deserve mere courtesy. He demands a crown or a cross.

So it is with this verse. We dare not call it good literature. It claims authority and veracity. From this verse one should either read on, expecting a revelation from God in this book, or he should set it aside as mere religious rhetoric.

Let us remember that no one witnessed the creation:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth! Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? Or where were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-7).

There are only two viable options as to where Genesis 1:1 (and the rest of the book) came from. Either it was a product of a human author’s imagination, or it is divinely revealed truth. If it is the former, we should value it only as a work of antiquity, on the same level as other ancient cosmogonies. If the latter, we must come on bended knee, willing to hear and obey it as an authoritative word from God.

This view of Genesis as divine revelation, the historical account of our origins, is that of the remainder of the Scriptures.

To Him who made the heavens with skill, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; to Him who spread out the earth above the waters, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; to Him who made the great Lights, for His lovingkindness is everlasting; the sun to rule by day, for His lovingkindness is everlasting, the moon and stars to rule by night, for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalm 136:5-9).

The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these. It is I who made the earth, and created man upon it. I stretched out the heavens with My hands, and I ordained all their host. For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited), “I am the Lord, and there is none else” (Isaiah 45:7,12,18).

For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression (I Tim 2:13-14; cf. also Matt 19:4-6; Rom 5:14f).

Our Approach to the Book of Genesis

We will therefore come to the book of Genesis as divine revelation. We shall endeavor to interpret the book literally, in the light of the culture and customs of its day. We will attempt to find eternal principles which are as true today as they were those many years ago. We will then suggest how these eternal truths relate to us in our own age.

This series will not be (Lord willing) a message marathon, persisting forever and ever, age without end. My purpose is to deal with Genesis on a chapter by chapter basis, keeping an understanding of the argument of the book as a primary goal.

I will not deal extensively with the theory of evolution in the first two chapters. This is for several reasons. First, I do not think this issue is within the primary thrust of the book. I would have to depart from the text and to speculate much to deal effectively with evolution. Secondly, I have little interest and little expertise in this scientific area.

(I refuse to attack scientists out of my own ignorance, and I do not wish to be “drawn offsides” so to speak by theories which are critical of divine revelation.) Thirdly, I wish to stay within the Bible’s emphasis and application when dealing with creation. For thousands of years evolution was not an issue. What did people learn from Genesis 1 and 2 all those years? Fourth, most Americans are either tired of hearing about evolution or don’t believe in it anyway: “Half of the adults in the U.S. believe God created Adam and Eve to start the human race.”16

The issue of creationism is ultimately not one over facts, but of faith:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Romans 1:20-21).

By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible (Hebrews 11:3).

I must say that I am eager to begin this study of Genesis. I would ask you to study the book carefully and prayerfully. Most of all, I would hope that in its study we would come to know God as did men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

1 Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 9.

2 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960), I, p. 22.

3 For a more detailed analysis of the authorship of Genesis, cf. Kidner, pp. 15-26; Baxter, I, p. 22; H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 5-9.

4 Kidner, p. 16.

5 Cf. Gleason Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964), pp. 110-115.

6 Cf. Kidner, pp. 20-21.

7 Cf. Kidner, pp. 21-22; Archer, pp. 117ff.

8 As we have in Psalms or Proverbs, for example.

9 “No lack of such sources, oral and written, however, need be supposed for an author of the period indicated in section a. (pp. 15f.), since Abram had migrated from a country that was rich in traditions and genealogies, and Joseph (like Moses after him) had lived many years in the intellectual climate of the Egyptian court on the one hand (with access to, e.g., the detailed ethnography reflected in Genesis 10) and of the patriarchal society on the other, with ample opportunities of preserving these stores of information.” Kidner, pp. 22-23.

10 “With the study of Genesis on its own terms, that is, as a living whole, not a body to be dissected, the impression becomes inescapable that its characters are people of flesh and blood, its events actual, and the book itself a unity. If this is right, the mechanics of composition are matters of small importance, since the parts of this whole are not competing for credence as rival traditions, and the author of the book does not draw attention, as do the writers of Kings and Chronicles, to the sources of his information.” Ibid, p. 22.

11 Quoted by J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book, I, p. 22.

12 As quoted by H. C. Leuphold, “Genesis,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), II, p. 679. This excellent article has a helpful summary of the book, chapter by chapter.

13 Baxter, Explore the Book, I, p. 23.

14 Kidner, p. 127.

15 Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Time and Space (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 9.

16 “We Poll the Pollster,” Christianity Today, December 21, 1979, p. 14.
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2. The Creation of the Heavens and the Earth (Genesis 1:1-2:3)


I want to be especially careful as we approach this first chapter of the book of Genesis. This past week I read an account of a man who attempted to quote Scripture from our passage as a proof text for smoking pot. Here is the account as given by Christianity Today a couple of years ago:

Arrested in Olathe, Kansas, for possession of the drug, Herb Overton based his defense on Genesis l:29: “and God said, … I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth …”

Judge Earl Jones doubted Overton’s hermeneutics, however. According to a Chicago Tribune account, the judge told the Bible-quoting defendant: “As a mere mortal, I’m going to find you guilty of possession of marijuana. If you want to appeal to a higher authority, that’s fine with me.”17

We can all read of such an event and laugh about it. While Herb Overton’s error is comical, there may be a less obvious error of which many Christians may be guilty—and it is not a laughing matter.

This week my attention was arrested by a brief article in Eternity magazine entitled, “Evangelicalism’s Six Flaws.” Most of the article has me still scratching my head, but I was particularly troubled by this statement:

We have treated creation as a static occurrence—arguing whether or not God has created it in seven days, thus missing the point of the religious meaning of creation and the ongoing activity of God in history.18

As I have considered Robert Webber’s accusation, it seems to me that we evangelicals have made five major errors in the way we have handled Genesis over the past few years. Most of these errors are in part a reaction to the three-fold attack of atheistic evolution, comparative religion and literary criticism.19

(1) We have dealt with the creation account according to a scientific grid. Some recent theories and conclusions of scientists have challenged the traditional interpretation of the biblical creation accounts. In a conscientious effort to prove the Bible to be scientifically accurate, we have approached the first chapters of Genesis from a scientific point of view. The problem is that these chapters were not intended to give us an account of the creation that would answer all of the scientific problems and phenomenon.

Dr. B. B. Warfield has stated the problem well:

A glass window stands before us. We raise our eyes and see the glass; we note its quality, and observe its defects; we speculate on its composition. Or we look straight through it on the great prospect of land and sea and sky beyond. So there are two ways of looking at the world. We may see the world and absorb ourselves in the wonders of nature. That is the scientific way. Or we may look right through the world and see God behind it. That is the religious way.

The scientific way of looking at the world is not wrong any more than the glass-manufacturer’s way of looking at the window. This way of looking at things has its very important uses. Nevertheless the window was placed there not to be looked at but to be looked through; and the world has failed of its purpose unless it too is looked through and the eye rests not on it but on its God.20

The author of Genesis has not written the creation account for the glass maker. Rather he urges us to look through the glass of his account to the Creator behind it all.

(2) We have used the creation account of Genesis as an apologetic, when its primary purpose is not apologetic. The apologetic use of the early chapters of Genesis, while of value,21 is not in keeping with the author’s purpose for writing. Genesis was written to the people of God, not unbelievers. Men who refuse to believe in creationism do not do so for lack of facts or proof (cf. Rom 1:18ff), or due to their greater knowledge (Psalm 14:1), but due to a lack of faith (Hebrews 11:3). Genesis is much more of a declaration than a defense.

(3) We have attempted to find in Genesis one the answers to mysteries which may or may not be explained elsewhere. We may wish to learn, for example, just where Satan’s fall and judgment fit into the creation account, but may not be given such information because it was not the purpose of the author to answer such questions.22

(4) We have failed to study Genesis one in its historical context. I suppose that it is easy to commit such an error here. We may doubt that there is any historical background. Or we may conclude that this is precisely the purpose of the chapter—to give us a historical account of creation.

The background which is vital to our grasp of the meaning and message of creation is that of those who first received this book. Assuming Moses to be the author of Genesis, the book most likely would have been written sometime after the Exodus and before the entrance to the land of Canaan. What was the situation at the time of the writing of this creation account? Who received this revelation and what needs were to be met by it? This is crucial to rightly interpreting and applying the message of the creation.

(5) We have often failed to apply the first chapter of Genesis one in any way that is relevant to our own spiritual lives. As one of my friends put it, “We come to a message on Genesis chapter one expecting nothing more than to have our apologetic batteries recharged again.”

The creation account becomes a prominent theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Here, as elsewhere, we cannot do wrong by allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. When the creation theme occurs in Scripture, it calls forth a response from men. We have frequently failed to call for any such response as we have taught Genesis chapter one.

The Historical Backdrop of Genesis 1

Revelation never is given in a historical vacuum. The Bible speaks to men in specific situations and with particular needs. We cannot rightly interpret Scripture or apply it to ourselves until we have answered the question, “What did this passage mean to those to whom it was originally given?” From archaeological studies much is known of the literature, culture, and religions of those who surrounded the Israelites. Understanding the contemporaries of the Israelites greatly enhances our grasp of the meaning of the creation account according to divine revelation as found in Genesis one.

First, we know that virtually every nation had its own cosmogony, or creation account(s). Somehow I had always thought that the account of Genesis one was something new and original. Actually this revelation came late compared to other near eastern nations. Antiquity had devoted a great deal of time and effort to its origins. The account of Genesis chapter one had to ‘compete,’ so to speak, with the other accounts of its day.

Secondly, there is an almost remarkable similarity between these pagan cosmogonies. From her study of twelve myths, Ms. Wakeman has identified three features always present: “1) a repressive monster restraining creation, 2) the defeat of the monster by the heroic god who thereby releases the forces essential for life, and 3) the hero’s final control over these forces.”23

Third, while distressing to some, there is considerable similarity between the pagan creation myths and the inspired account of creation in the Bible.24 The correspondence includes the use of some of the same terms (e.g. Leviathan) or descriptions (e.g., a man-headed sea monster), similar literary form,25 and a parallel sequence of events at creation.26

The explanation of these similarities by some are unacceptable. For example, we are told that these similarities evidence the fact that the biblical cosmogony is no different than any other ancient creation myth. Others would assure us that while there are similarities, the Israelites ‘demythologized’ these corrupted accounts to assure an accurate account of the origin of the earth and man.27 Some conservative scholars simply call the correspondence coincidence, though this seems to avoid the difficulties, rather than to explain them. The most acceptable explanation is that the similarity is explained by the fact that all similar creation accounts attempt to explain the same phenomenon.

Early races of men wherever they wandered took with them these earliest traditions of mankind, and in varying Latitudes and climes have modified them according to their religions and mode of thought. Modifications as time proceeded resulted in the corruption of the original pure tradition. The Genesis account is not only the purist, but everywhere bears the unmistakable impress of divine inspiration when compared with the extravagances and corruptions of other accounts. The Biblical narrative, we may conclude, represents the original form these traditions must have assumed.28

More important than the fact that the nations surrounding Israel had their own (perhaps older) accounts of creation, was the use to which these were put in the ancient Near East. Ancient cosmogonies were not carefully recorded and preserved out of a love for ancient history; they were the foundation of religious observance.

In the ancient world their deities were nature gods, sun gods, moon gods, rain gods, and so on.29 In order to assure the on-going of the forces of nature and guarantee bountiful crops and growing herds of cattle, the creation myths were re-enacted every year.

Myth, therefore, in the ancient world was mimetically re-enacted in public festivals to the accompaniment of ritual. The whole complex constituted imitative magic, the effect of which was believed to be beneficial to the entire community. Through ritual aroma, the primordial events recorded in the myth were reactivated. The enactment at the appropriate season of the creative deeds of the gods, and the recitation of the proper verbal formulae, it was believed, would effect the periodic renewal and revitalization of nature and so assure the prosperity of the community.30

From this background we can begin to realize how vital a role was played by cosmogony in the ancient Near East. Israel’s social and religious life, like that of her neighbors, was based upon her origin. The Genesis account of creation laid the foundation for the remainder of the Pentateuch.

In this light we can see the significance of the contest between the God of Israel and the ‘gods’ of Egypt. Pharaoh dared to ask Moses, “Who is the Lord that I should obey His voice to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2).

The answer of the Lord was a series of ten plagues. The message of these plagues was that Israel’s God is the creator of heaven and earth.

For I will go through the land of Egypt on that night and will strike down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord (Exo 12:12; cf. 18:11; Num 33:4).

It would seem that each plague was a direct affront to one of Egypt’s many gods. While a direct correlation of each plague to a specific god may be somewhat speculative,31 the battle of the gods is evident.

No wonder that the covenant sign of the Israelites was the keeping of the Sabbath:

But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, “You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.… It is sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed” (Exo 31:13,17).

Observing the Sabbath identified Israel with their God, the Creator Who ceased from labor on the seventh day.

The miracles of the Exodus, then, served a function similar to the signs and wonders performed by our Lord. They authenticated the message which was proclaimed. In our Lord’s case, it was the words He proclaimed and the inspired writers preserved. In the case of the Exodus, the Pentateuch was Moses’ written revelation of God which his miracles authenticated. The Exodus proved Yahweh to be the only God, the Creator and Redeemer. The Pentateuch provided the content for the faith of Israel, of which the creation account is the foundation.

Genesis 1:1-3

Many interpretations exist for the first three verses of the Bible, but we will briefly mention the three most popularly held by evangelicals. We will not spend a great deal of time here because our conclusions will be tentative and the differences have little bearing on the application of the text. Let me simply begin by saying that we who name the name of Christ as Savior must ultimately take Genesis 1:1 at face value on faith (Heb 11:3).

View 1: The Re-creation (or Gap) Theory. This view maintains that Genesis 1:1 describes the original creation of the earth, prior to the fall of Satan (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:12ff). As a result of Satan’s fall the earth lost its original state of beauty and bliss and is found in a state of chaos in Genesis 1:2. This ‘gap’ between verses 1 and 2 not only helps to explain the teaching of Satan’s fall, but it also allows for a considerable time period, which helps to harmonize the creation account with modern scientific theory. It does suffer from a number of difficulties.32

View 2: The Initial Chaos Theory. Briefly, this view holds that verse one would be an independent introductory statement. Verse 2 would describe the state of the initial creation as unformed and unfilled. In other words the universe is like an untouched block of granite before the sculpter begins to fashion it. The creation is not in an evil state, as the result of some catastrophic fall, but merely in its initial unformed state, like a lump of clay in the potter’s hands. Verses 3 and following begin to describe God’s working and fashioning of the mass, transforming it from chaos to cosmos. Many respectable scholars hold this position.33

View 3: Precreation Chaos Theory: In this view (held by Dr. Waltke), verse one is understood either as a dependent clause (“When God began to create … ”) or as an independent introductory summary statement (“In the beginning God created … ”). The creation account summarized in verse one begins in verse two. This ‘creation’ is not ‘ex nihilo’ (out of nothing), but out of the stuff existing in verse 2. Where this comes from is not explained in these verses. In effect, this view holds that the chaotic state does not occur between verses one and two, but before verse one of an unspecified time. The absolute origin of matter is, then, not the subject of the ‘creation’ account of Genesis 1, but only the relative beginnings of the world and civilization as we know it today.34

We might summarize the difference between these three viewpoints in this fashion:35

The Six Days of Creation

It is important to recognize that verses 2-31 do little more than expand upon verse 1. They do not fully (certainly not in a scientific fashion—who would have cared over the centuries until now?) explain creation. Neither do they prove it, for this is ultimately a faith issue. The facts upon which this faith must be based are simply stated.

There does seem to be a pattern to these six creation days, which many Bible students have observed. It can best be illustrated graphically:

Formlessness Changed to Form

Emptiness Changed to Habitation

vv 3-5

Day 1


vv 14-19

Day 4

Luminaries (sun, moon, stars)

vv 6-8

Day 2

Air (upper expanse)
Water (lower expanse)

vv 20-23

Day 5

Fish, Birds

vv 9-13

Day 3

Dry land plants

vv 24-31

Day 6

Animals, Man

Seen in this way, the first three days remedy the situation of formlessness described in Genesis 1:2. The 4-6 days deal with the state of ‘void’ or ‘emptiness’ of verse 2. There also seems to be a correlation between days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6. For example, the air and water receive corresponding life forms of fish and birds, though this should not be pressed too far.

Two other observations should be pointed out. First, there is a sequence to the six days. It is clear that this account is arranged chronologically, each day building upon the creative activity of previous days. Secondly, there is a process involved in the creation, a process involving the change from chaos to cosmos, disorder to order.

While God could have instantaneously created the earth as it is, He did not choose to do so. The clear impression given by the text is that this process took six literal days, and not long ages. Nevertheless, the eternal God is not nearly so concerned about doing things instantaneously as we are. The process of sanctification is only one of many examples of God’s progressive activity in the world.

The Meaning of
Creation for the Israelites of Old

Before we approach the question of what the creation should mean to us, we must deal with its meaning for those who first read these inspired words from the pen of Moses. The initial purpose of this account was for the Israelites of Moses’ day. What should they have learned? How should they have responded?

(1) The creation account of Genesis was a corrective to the corrupted cosmogonies of their day. We have already said that Egypt, for example, believed in a multiplicity of nature-deities. We need to recognize that Israel, due to her close and prolonged contact with the Egyptians, was not unaffected by their religious views.

“Now, therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:14).

It was not enough to regard Yahweh merely as a god, one among many. Neither should He be conceived of as just the God of Israel. Yahweh is God alone. There is no other god. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He is not merely superior to the gods of the surrounding nations; He alone is God.

The tendency to begin to confuse God with His creation was a part of the thinking of the ancient world. He must be regarded as the God of creation, not just God in creation. Every attempt to visualize or humanize God in the form of any created thing was a tendency to equate God with His creation. So it was, I believe, with Aaron’s golden calf.

(2) The creation account describes the character and attributes of God. Negatively, Genesis one corrects many popular misconceptions concerning God. Positively, it portrays His character and attributes.

  • God is sovereign and all-powerful. Distinct from the cosmogonies of other ancient peoples, there is no creation struggle described in Genesis one. God does not overcome opposing forces to create the earth and man. God creates with a mere command, “Let there be … ” There is order and progress. God does not experiment, but rather skillfully fashions the creation of His omniscient design.
  • God is no mere force, but a Person. While we must be awed by the transcendence of God, we should also be His immanence. He is no distant cosmic force, but a personal ever-present God. This is reflected in the fact that He creates man in His image (1:26-28). Man is a reflection of God. Our personhood is a mere shadow of God’s. In chapter two God provided Adam with a meaningful task and with a counterpart as a helper. In the third chapter we learn that God communed with man in the garden daily (cf. 3:8).
  • God is eternal. While other creations are vague or erroneous concerning the origin of their gods, the God of Genesis is eternal. The creation account describes His activity at the beginning of time (from a human standpoint).
  • God is good. The creation did not take place in a moral vacuum. Morality was woven into the fabric of creation. Repeatedly, the expression is found “it was good.” Good implies not only usefulness and completion, but moral value. Those who hold to atheistic views of the origin of the earth see no value system other than what is held by the majority of people. God’s goodness is reflected in His creation, which, in its original state, was good. Even today, the graciousness and goodness of God is evident (cf. Matt 5:45; Acts 17:22-31).

The Meaning
of Creation for All Men

The theme of God as Creator is prominent throughout Scripture. It is significant that the last words of the Bible are remarkably similar to the first.

And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His bond-servants shall serve Him; and they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And there shall no longer be any night; and they shall not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall illumine them; and they shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 22:1-5).

The truth that God is the Creator of heaven and earth is not merely something to believe, but something to which we must respond. Let me mention just a few implications and applications of the teaching of Genesis 1.

(1) Men should submit to the God of creation in fear and obedience. The heavens proclaim the glory of God:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge (Psalm 19:1-2).

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Romans 1:20-21).

Men should fear the all powerful God of creation:

By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea together as a heap; He lays up the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast (Psalm 33:6-9).

The greatness of God is evident in the work of His hands—the creation which is all about us. Men should fear and reverence Him for Who He is.

Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, Thou art very great; Thou art clothed with splendor and majesty, covering Thyself with light as with a cloak, stretching out heaven like a tent curtain. He lays the beams of His upper chambers in the waters; He makes the clouds His chariot; He walks upon the wings of the wind; He makes the winds His messengers, flaming fire His ministers. He established the earth upon its foundations, so that it will not totter forever and ever. Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters were standing above the mountains. At Thy rebuke they fled; at the sound of Thy thunder they hurried away. The mountains rose; the valleys sank down to the place which Thou didst establish for them. Thou didst set a boundary that they may not pass over; that they may not return to cover the earth ( Psalm 104:1-9).

(2) Men should trust in the God of creation, to provide their every need.

Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tenth of all. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share (Genesis 14:17-24).

Abram offered tithes to Melchizedek on the basis of his profession that Abram’s God was “God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth” (verse 19,20). And yet while Abram gave a tithe to Melchizedek, he refused to benefit in any monetary way from the pagan king of Sodom, for he wanted this man to know that “God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth” was the One Who made him prosper.

We sing, “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills … I know that He will care for me.” That is good theology. The God Who is our Creator, is also our Sustainer. You see God did not wind up the universe and then leave it to itself, as some seem to say. God maintains a continual care over His creation.

He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the labor of man, so that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine which makes man’s heart glad, so that he may make his face glisten with oil, and food which sustains man’s heart. The trees of the Lord drink their fill. The cedars of Lebanon which He planted, where the birds build their nests, and the stork, whose home is the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers. He made the moon for the seasons, the sun knows the place of its setting. Thou dost appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw, and lie down in their dens, man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening (Psalm 104:14-23).

The New Testament goes an additional step by informing us that the Son of God was the Creator, and continues to serve as the Sustainer of the creation, holding all things together:

For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).

(3) Men should be humbled by the wisdom of God as evidenced in creation. Job had endured much affliction. But finally, enough was enough. He began to question the wisdom of God in his adversity. To his questioning God responded,

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me! Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth! Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7).

Job was challenged to fathom the wisdom of God in creation. He could not explain or comprehend it, let alone challenge it. How, then, could Job possibly question the wisdom of God’s working in his life. True, he could not see the purpose in it all, but his perspective was not God’s. Let any who would question God’s dealing in our lives contemplate God’s infinite wisdom as seen in creation, and then be silent and wait upon Him to do what is right.

If man should choose to ponder any question, let him attempt to fathom why an infinite God would so concern Himself with mere man:

When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the Stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? and the son of man, that Thou dost care for him? Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty! (Psalm 8:3-5).

(4) Man should find comfort in times of distress and difficulty, knowing that His creator is able and willing to deliver him.

Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right (I Peter 4:19).

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary (Isaiah 40:27-31).

Thus says God the Lord, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it, and spirit to those who walk in it, ‘I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations’ (Isaiah 42:5-6).

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these (Isaiah 45:5-7).

(5) Man should respond to the God of creation with the praise that is due Him:

Let the glory of the Lord endure forever; let the Lord be glad in His works; He looks at the earth, and it trembles; He touches the mountains, and they smoke. I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. Let my meditation be pleasing to Him; as for me, I shall be glad in the Lord. Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord! (Psalm 104:31-35).

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! Praise Him, highest heavens, and the waters that are above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the Lord, for He commanded and they were created. He has also established them forever and ever; He has made a decree which will not pass away (Psalm 148:1-6).

Come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker (Psalm 95:6).

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth, Who hast displayed Thy splendor above the heavens! (Psalm 8:1).


My friend, the teaching of Genesis one is a great and mighty truth. It is one that demands more than assent; it necessitates action. And yet, great as it is, it has been paled by the coming of Jesus Christ. Just as God proclaimed, let there be light, so God has once and for all spoken in these last days (Heb 1:1-2) in His Son, Who is the light:

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Corinthians 4:6).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him; and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:1-5).

There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:9-13).

While God revealed Himself faintly in creation, He has disclosed Himself fully in His Son:

No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (John 1:18).

We cannot avoid the biblical revelation that the God Who created heaven and earth, the God Who redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, is the God-man of Galilee, Jesus Christ. Just as He fashioned the first creation (Col 1:16), so He has now come to accomplish a new creation, through His work on the cross of Calvary:

Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come (II Corinthians 5:17).

Beyond this there will soon come a day when the heavens and the earth will be purged of the effects of sin and there will be a new heaven and a new earth:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells (II Peter 3:10-13).

Are you ready for that day, my friend? Have you become a new creation in Christ? Genesis one reveals how God has taken chaos and fashioned it into cosmos—order and beauty. If you have never come to Christ, I can say with total confidence that your life is formless and empty; it is chaotic and lifeless. The same One Who turned chaos into cosmos can make your life anew.

17 “Pot Proof,” Christianity Today, September 22, 1978, p. 43.

18 “Evangelicalisms Six Flaws,” Eternity, January, 1980, p. 54. This article by the Staff of Eternity magazine is a summary of an article by Robert E. Webber, published in the October issue of New Oxford Review.

19 Dr. Bruce Waltke briefly describes this threefold attack:

First, there came the challenge of the scientific community. In the wake of Charles Darwin’s revolutionary hypothesis of evolution to explain the origin of species, the majority of the scientific community fell in with Darwin’s hypothesis against the Bible. They believed that they could validate Darwin’s theory by empirical data, but they thought that they could not do the same for the Bible.

The second challenge came from the comparative religionists who sought to discredit the biblical story by noting the numerous points of similarity between it and ancient mythological creation accounts from various parts of the near East being studied at that time. . . . According to his (Gunkel’s) view, the Hebrew version of creation was just another Near Eastern folk tale but in the process of time the transmitters of the story improved it by their creative and superior philosophical and theological insights.

The third challenge came from literary criticism. The case was stated most persuasively by Julius Wellhausen in his most influential classic, still available in paperback on book stands, entitled, Pro Legomena to the Old Testament. Here he argued that there were at least two distinct accounts of creation in Genesis l and 2 and that these two accounts contradicted each other at various points. Bruce Waltke, Creation and Chaos (Portland, Oregon: Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1974), pp. 1-2.

20 Benjamin B. Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. I, edited by John E. Meeker (Nutley, N.J. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1970), p. 108.

21 I must stress here that we should take seriously Peter’s instruction, “ . . . always being ready to make a defense to every one who asks you to give on account for the hope that is in you . . . ” (I Peter 3:15). Even here, in what might be called an exhortation for apologetic readiness, the message most needed by the unbeliever is the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ. My experience is that few are saved by the use of the Genesis account of creation as an apologetic. For those who are seriously considering the claims of Christ, but fear the Bible to be untrustworthy, such effort may well be worthwhile.

22 “First we can say, that the Book of Genesis does not inform us concerning the origin of that which is contrary to the nature of God, neither in the cosmos nor in the world of the spirit. Where does the opposite of Him that is good and bright originate? When we delve into the problem of the origin of evil in the moral realm, we come upon a great mystery. Suddenly, without explanation, in Genesis 3 an utterly evil brilliant, intelligent personality appears in the Garden of Eden masquerading as a serpent. The principle of origins, so strong in our minds, demands on explanation. But the truth is that the Book mocks us. Likewise, when we come to that which is negative in the cosmos, something devoid of form and dark, the Bible provides us with no information. Here are some of the secret things that belong to God” (Waltke, Creation and Chaos, p. 52). While I do not prefer Dr. Waltke’s choice of words (“the Book mocks us”), I do agree with his position that Genesis does not tell us all we might desire to learn.

23 Wakeman, as quoted by Waltke, Creation and Chaos , p. 6.

24 Waltke demonstrates the similarities between the biblical cosmogony with the creation myths of the ancient near east:

First, by a comparison of Psalm 74:13,14 with the Ugaritic Text 67:I: 1-3 (Waltke, p. 12).

Psalm 74:13-14: “Thou hast broken the sea with Thy might, even smashed the heads of the monster of the waters, Thou hast crushed the heads of Leviathan, even given him as food for the people. . . .”

Text 67: I . 1-3, 27-30: “When thou smitest Lotan (Leviathan) the evil dragon, even destroyest the crooked dragon, the mighty one of the seven heads. . . .”

Second, by a comparison of Isaiah 27:1 with the Ugaritic Text ‘nt:III: 38-39 (Waltke, p. 13):

Isaiah 27:1: “On that day God will visit, with his sword (that is) mighty and great and powerful, Leviathan the evil serpent, even Leviathan the crooked serpent, and slay the monster that is in the sea.”

Text ‘ni:III: 38-39: “The crooked dragon, the mighty one of the seven heads.”

25 Cf. Waltke, Creation and Chaos, pp. 33,35. Actually, this similarity in form between the biblical text of the Pentateuch and the ancient Near Eastern texts has proven to be a blessing to those who hold to a unified (Mosaic) authorship:

“Kitchen compared the Pentateuch with ancient Near Eastern texts and discovered that the same features used by the critics as a divining rod to divide up the Pentateuch were present in these texts, written on rock with no pre-history.” Waltke, pp. 41-42.

26 Ibid, p. 45.

27 “The most common explanation of those scholars who regard the world as a closed system without divine intervention is that Israel borrowed these mythologies, demythologized them, purged them of their gross and base polytheism, and gradually adapted them to their own developing and higher theology.” Ibid., p. 46.

28 Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament, p. 37, quoted by Waltke, p. 46.

29 “In Canaan at the time of the Conquest, each city had its own temple dedicated to some force of nature. The name Jericho derives from the Hebrew word, yerah, which means “moon” for its inhabitants worshipped the moon, the god “Yerach.” Likewise, on the other side of the central ridge of Palestine, we find the city of Beth Shemesh, which means “Temple of the Sun” for Shamash, the sun god, was worshipped there.” Waltke, p. 47.

30 Sarna, Understanding Genesis, p. 7, as quoted by Waltke, p. 47.

31 “The knowledge extant concerning the practical everyday worship of the Egyp. pantheon is meager, and for all intents and purposes little or nothing is known about their metaphysical assumptions from the documented sources. It is obvious, however, that the twenty-two Egyp. provinces each had their respective religious center and totemic animal or plant. It is precisely the attributes of these deities that are involved in the plagues, but whether each of the plagues was thought to be the special domain of one or another of the Egyp. gods cannot be stated with certainty.” W. White, Jr. “The Plagues of Egypt, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), IV, p. 806.

32 Cf. Waltke, pp. 21-25.

33 For example, E. J. Young, In the Beginning (Carlisle; Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), pp. 20ff.

34 “But what shall we say about the uncreated or unformed state, the darkness and the deep of Genesis 1:2? Here we enter a great mystery for the Bible never says that God brought these into existence by His Word. What can we say about them?” Bruce Waltke, p. 52.

35 Adapted from Waltke, p. 18.
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3. The Meaning of Man: His Duty and His Delight (Genesis 1:26-31; 2:4-25)


Within the last several weeks a rather frightening case was reported in the newspaper. Its implications are almost incredible. The suit involved an elderly gentleman who was apparently a bit senile, and who was also on dialysis. The family determined that the old gentleman had passed the time of productivity and, if he had the mental ability to reason it out properly, would have wished to terminate his meager existence. Had the nurses, who had grown to love this man, not protested, this man might be dead today.

We live in a frightening age. We now have awesome technological and biological powers in our hands, but no solid ethical or moral basis for the determination of how these powers are to be used. Not only have we made it convenient and inexpensive to kill children while still in the womb, there is actually serious discussion of issuing a life certificate which would pronounce an infant legally alive, just as one is now legally certified to be dead. This certificate would not be issued until after the birth of a child, when a complete battery of tests could be administered. Any ‘inferior’ or potentially non-productive infant would simply be rejected and not pronounced ‘alive’ and thus terminated. I am told that in some places of the world suicide is not considered a crime and counsel is now given to those who wish to pursue it—but not to convince them of the error of their ways!

In a day when the power of life and death seems to be more in the hands of men than ever before, we find our society in a moral vacuum in which these life and death decisions are to be made. The age-old philosophical questions about the meaning of life are no longer simply academic and intellectual—they are intensely practical and must be answered.

In the light of such issues, never have these verses in Genesis 1 and 2 been of more importance than they are today. In them we find the meaning of man. I have therefore entitled this message, The Meaning of Man: His Duty and His Delight. To rightly understand this passage is to grasp eternal principles which should determine many of our ethical and moral decisions. Beyond this, we are reminded anew of what it is that really makes our lives worthwhile.

While we have already dealt with the six days of creation in a very general way, it is important for us to understand the relationship between the first three chapters of Genesis. Chapter one outlines creation chronologically. (Actually verses 1-3 of chapter two should be included here also.)

God created the heavens and the earth, and all life in six days, while He rested on the seventh day. Man is pictured as the crown of God’s creation. In order to maintain a chronological format, only a very general description of man’s creation is given in verses 26-31.

Chapter two returns to this matter of the creation of man with a much more detailed account. Far from contradicting chapter one, as some scholars have suggested, it greatly compliments it. While it is stated that God created man, both male and female (1:26-27), it is described more fully in chapter 2. In chapter one man is given every plant to eat (1:29-30), in chapter two man is placed in a lovely garden (2:8-17). In the first chapter man is told to rule over all God’s creatures (1:26, 28), in the second man is given the task of naming God’s creatures (2:19-20). Contradictions between these two chapters must be contrived, for it is clear that the writer of the first chapter intended to fill out the details in the second.

Furthermore, chapter two serves as an introduction and preparation for the account of the fall in chapter three. Chapter two gives us the setting for the fall of man which is described in chapter three. We are introduced to the garden (2:8-9), the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). The woman who was to be deceived is introduced in chapter two as well. Without chapter two the first chapter would be far too brief and the third would come upon us unprepared.

If chapter one is laid out in chronological fashion—that is in a sequence of seven days, chapter two is not chronological, but logical. Of course the events of chapter two fit into chapter one’s order, but the chapter is laid out differently. If chapter one is creation as seen through a wide angle lens, chapter two is viewed through a telephoto lens. In chapter one man is found at the top of a pyramid, as the crown of God’s creative activity. In chapter two man is at the center of the circle of God’s activity and interest.

Man’s Dignity

Since chapter two builds upon the bare details of 1:26-31, let us begin by considering these verses more carefully. Man, as we have said before, is the crown of God’s creative program. This is evident in several particulars.

First, man is the last of God’s creatures. The whole account builds up to man’s creation. Second, man alone is created in the image of God. While there is considerable discussion as to what this means, several things are implied in the text itself. Man is created in the image and likeness of God in his sexuality.

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Genesis 1:27).

This is not to say that God is male or female, but that God is both unity and diversity. Man and woman in marriage become one and yet they are distinct. Unity in diversity as reflected in man’s relationship with his wife reflects one facet of God’s personhood.

Also, man somehow is like God in that which distinguished him from the animal world. Man, as distinct from animals, is made in the image and likeness of God. What distinguishes man from animal must therefore be a part of His reflection of God. Man’s ability to reason, to communicate, and to make moral decisions must be a part of this distinction.

Further, man reflects God in the fact that he rules over creation. God is the Sovereign Ruler of the universe. He has delegated a small portion of His authority to man in the rule of creation. In this sense, too, man reflects God.

Notice as well that it is man and woman who rule: “… and let them rule … ” (Genesis 1:26, cf. verse 28).

Them refers to man and his wife, not just the males He has made. While Adam has the function of headship (as evidenced by his priority in creation,36 his being the source of his wife,37 and his naming of Eve38), Eve’s task was to be a helper to her husband. In this sense both are to rule over God’s creation.

One more point should be made here. There seems to be little doubt that in the provision God has made for man’s food, only vegetarian foods are included at this time:

Then God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life; I have given every green plant for food; and it was so’ (Genesis 1:29-30).

It was not until after the fall, and perhaps after the flood, that meat was given as food for man (cf. Genesis 9:3-4). Shedding of blood would have significance only after the fall, as a picture of coming redemption through the blood of Christ. In the Millennium we are told,

The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall do no evil or harm in all My holy mountain, says the Lord (Isaiah 65:25).

If I understand the Scriptures correctly, the Millennium will be a return to things as they once were before the fall. Thus, in the paradise of Eden, Adam and Eve and the animal kingdom were all vegetarians. How, then, can some speak of ‘survival of the fittest’ until after the creation of all things and the fall of man?

But more important than this is the fact that man’s dignity and worth are not imputed by man, but they are intrinsic to man as one who has been created in the image of God. Man’s worth is directly related to his origin. No wonder we are hearing such frightening ethical and moral positions proposed today.

Any view of man’s origin which does not view man as the product of divine design and purpose, cannot attribute to man the worth which God has given him. To put it another way, our evaluation of man is directly proportionate to our estimation of God.

I am no prophet, my friend, but I will venture to say that we who name the name of Christ are going to have to stand up and be counted in the days to come. Abortion, euthanasia, and bioethics, to name just a few, are going to demand ethical and moral standards. The bedrock principle upon which such decisions must be made, in my estimation, is the fact that all men are created in God’s image.

In this light, I can now see why our Lord could sum up the whole of the Old Testament in two commands,

And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-40).

The attitude of the future seems to be to love only those ‘neighbors’ who are the contributors to society, only those who may be considered assets. How different is the value system of our Lord, who said,

Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me (Matthew 25:40).

In my estimation, here is where we Christians are going to be put to the test. Some are strongly suggesting that those who our Lord called ‘the least’ are precisely those who should be eliminated from society. May God help us to see that man’s dignity is that which is divinely determined.

Man’s Duty

While Genesis 1 describes a progression from chaos to cosmos, or disorder to order, chapter two follows a different pattern. Perhaps the literary thread which runs throughout the passage is that of God’s creative activity in supplying those things which are deficient.

Verse 4 serves as an introduction to the remaining verses.39 Verse 5 informs us of the deficiencies which are supplied in verses 6-17: No shrub, no plant, no rain, and no man. These are satisfied by the mist (verse 6) and the rivers (verses 10-14), the man (verse 7), and the garden (verses 8-9).

The deficiency of verses 18-25 is, simply stated, “no helper suitable for Adam” (cf. verses 18,20). This helper is provided in a beautiful way in the last part of chapter 2.

Again, let me emphasize that Moses goes not intend to give us a chronological order of events here, but a logical one.40 His purpose is to more particularly describe the creation of man, his wife, and the setting into which they are put. These become key factors in the fall which occurs in chapter 3.

While as yet no rain had ever fallen, God provided the water which was needed for plant life. “But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground” (Genesis 2:6).

There is some discussion over this word ‘mist’ (‘ed). It could mean a mist or a fog, as some contend.41 The Septuagint used the Greek word pege, which means ‘spring.’ Some have understood the Hebrew word as being derived from a Sumerian word, referring to subterranean waters.42 It may be that springs flowed out of the ground and that vegetation was perhaps watered by irrigation or channels. This could even explain, in part, the work of Adam in keeping the garden.

The water being supplied, God created the garden, which was to be the place of man’s abode, and the object of his attention. It was well-supplied with many trees which provided both beauty and food.

And out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9).

Specifically, two trees are mentioned, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This latter tree was the only thing forbidden man.

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die’ (Genesis 2:16-17).

It is interesting that seemingly Adam, alone, is told by God that the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil must not be eaten. One can only conjecture as to how effectively God’s command to Adam was communicated to Eve. Could this explain Eve’s inaccurate appraisal in 3:2-3?

Into this paradise,43 man was placed. While he was surely to enjoy this wonderland, he was also to cultivate it. Look again at verse 5:

Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth; and there was no man to cultivate the ground (Genesis 2:5).

When placed in the garden, Adam was to work there: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).

Adam’s creation is described more fully in 2:7 than in chapter one. He was formed44 from the dust of the ground. While this is a humbling fact, it is also obvious that man’s origin is not from the animal world, nor is man created in the same way as the animals. In part, Adam’s dignity stems from the fact that his life breath is the inspiration of God (verse 7).

Here was no mythical garden. Every part of the description of this paradise inclines us to understand that it was a real garden in a particular geographical location. Specific points of reference are given. Four rivers are named, two of which are known to us today. We should not be surprised, especially after the cataclysmic event of the flood, that changes may have occurred, which would make it impossible to locate this spot precisely.

I find it most interesting that the Paradise of Eden was a place somewhat different from what we envision today. First of all, it was a place of work. Men today dream of paradise as a hammock suspended between two coconut trees on some desert island, where work is never again to be contemplated. Furthermore, heaven is thought of as the end of all prohibitions. Heaven is frequently confused with hedonism. It is very self-centered and pleasure-oriented. While Adam’s state was one of beauty and bliss, it cannot be thought of as unrestricted pleasure. The forbidden fruit is a part of Paradise, too. Heaven is not the experiencing of every desire, but the satisfaction of beneficial and wholesome desires.

Servanthood is not a new concept in the New Testament. Meaningful service provides fulfillment and purpose for life. God described Israel as a cultivated garden, a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2ff.). Jesus spoke of Himself as the Vine and we as the branches. The Father tenderly cared for His vineyard (John 15:1ff.). Paul described the ministry as the work of a farmer (II Timothy 2:6).

While the church of the New Testament may be better described as a flock, nevertheless the image of the garden is not inappropriate. There is a work to be done for the child of God. And that work is no drudgery, no duty to begrudgingly carry out. It is a source of joy and fulfillment. Many today have no real sense of meaning and purpose because they are not doing the work that God has designed for them to carry out.

Man’s Delight

One deficiency remains. There is now adequate water, the beautiful and bountiful provision of the garden, and a man to cultivate it. But there is not yet a companion suitable for man. This need is met in verses 18-25.

The garden, with its pleasures and provisions for food and meaningful activity was not sufficient unless these delights could he shared. God would provide Adam with that which he needed most.

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him’ (Genesis 2:18).

Adam’s mate was to be a very special creation, a ‘helper, suitable for him’ (verse 18). She was to be a ‘helper,’ not a slave, and not an inferior. The Hebrew word ezer is most interesting. It was a word that Moses obviously liked, for in Exodus 18:4 we are told that this was the name he gave to one of his sons.

And the other was named Eliezer (El=God), for he said, ‘The God of my father was my help (ezer), and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh’ (Exodus 18:4).

The other three times ezer is found used by Moses in Deuteronomy (33:7,26,29), it refers to God as man’s helper. So also in the Psalms (20:2; 33:20; 70:5; 89:19; 115:9; 121:1,2; 124:8; 146:5).

The point of the word as it is most often employed in the Old Testament is that the help given implies no inferiority whatsoever. In a way consistent with its usage, God is helping man through women. What a beautiful thought. How far above some conceptions this is.

Then also, she is a helper who ‘corresponds to’ Adam. One translation reads, “… I will make a helper like him.”45

This is precisely opposite the point. Yet this is often what we consider the perfect wife—one who is just like us. Incompatibility is by divine design in many instances. As Dwight Hervey Small has correctly observed,

Incompatibility is one of the purposes of marriages! God has appointed conflict and burdens for lessons in spiritual growth. These are to be subservient to high and holy purposes.46

Just as Eve was fashioned so as to correspond to Adam in a physical way, so she complimented him socially, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.

As a result, when I counsel those who plan to marry, I do not seek to discover as many points of similarity as possible. Instead, I am concerned that each partner has an accurate view of what the other is really like, and that they are committed to the fact that God has joined them permanently. A recognition that God has made man and woman differently by design, and a determination to attain unity in this diversity is essential to a healthy marriage.

Before creating this counterpart, God first whet his appetite. The creatures which God had formed are now brought to Adam to name. This naming reflected Adam’s rule over the creatures, as God intended (cf. 1:28). It probably involved a careful study on Adam’s part to note the unique characteristics of each creature.47

This naming process may have taken some time. In the process, Adam would observe that no mere creature could ever fill the void in his life. Further, I would use a little sanctified imagination to conjecture that Adam observed each creature with its mate, a wonderfully designed counterpart. Adam must have realized that he, alone, was without a mate.

At this moment of intense need and desire, God put Adam in a deep sleep,48 and from his rib and attached flesh49 fashioned the woman.50 He then presented the woman to the man.

What excitement there is in Adam’s enthusiastic response:

And the man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:23).

I like the way the RSV renders Adam’s initial response, “at last … ”51

In this expression there is a mixture of relief, ecstasy, and delighted surprise. “This (for Adam has not yet named her) is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (verse 23a). The name of Adam’s mate is woman. The English translation nicely picks up the play on similar sounds. In Hebrews, man would be pronounced ’ish; woman would be ’ishshah. While the sounds are similar, the roots of the two words are different. Appropriately ’ish may come from a parallel Arabic root, conveying the idea of ‘exercising power,’ while the term ’ishshah may be derived from an Arabic parallel, meaning ‘to be soft’.52

The divinely inspired commentary of verse 24 is of utmost import:

For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

From the account it is imperative that a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. What is the relationship between this command to leave and cleave and the creation of women? Verse 24 begins, “For this cause … ” What cause is this? We can understand the reason only when we explain the command. Man is to leave his parents, not in the sense of avoiding his responsibility to them (e.g. Mark 7:10-13; Ephesians 6:2,3), but in the sense of being dependent upon them. He must cease to live under their headship and begin to function alone as the head of a new home.53

The woman is not commanded similarly because she simply transfers from one head to another. While she once was subject to her father, now she is joined to her husband. The man, however, has the more difficult transition. He, as a child, was dependent upon and submissive to his mother and father.

When a man marries he must go through the more radical transition from a dependent, submissive son to an independent (from a parents) leader, who functions as the head of the home.

As many have observed, the husband-wife relationship is permanent while the parent-child relationship is temporary. Even if the parents are unwilling to terminate the dependent relationship of son to parents, the son is responsible to do so. To fail to do so is to refuse the kind of bond necessary with his wife.

Now, perhaps, we are in a position to see the relationship of this command to the creation account. What is the reason for its mention here in Genesis? First of all, there are no parents to whom Adam or Eve have been born. Eve’s origin is directly from her husband, Adam. The union or bond between Adam and his wife is the union of coming from one flesh (Adam’s) and of becoming one flesh (in physical union). This bond is greater than that between parent and child. A woman is, of course, the product of her parents, as the man is of his. But the original union involved no parents, and the wife was a part of the flesh of her husband. This first marriage, then, is evidence of the primacy of the husband-wife relationship over that of the parent-child relationship.

The last verse is not incidental. It tells us a great deal that we need to know. “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).

We learn, for example, that a sexual side of this relationship was a part of the paradise experience. Sex did not originate with or after the fall. Procreation and physical intimacy were intended from the beginning (cf. 1:28). Also we see that sex could be enjoyed to its fullest in the divine plan. Disobedience to God did not heighten sexual pleasure; it diminished it. Today the world wishes to believe that they have invented sex and that God only seeks to prevent it. But sex, apart from God, is not what it could or should be.

Ignorance, if you will forgive me for saying so, is bliss. In our generation we are cool, if you prefer, sophisticated, only if we know (by experience) all there is to know about sex. “How naive are those who have never had sex before marriage,” we are led to believe. There are many things it is better not to know. Sex was never enjoyed so much as it was in sweet ignorance.

Later revelation does add much light to this text. Our Lord, significantly, quotes from chapter one and chapter two as though from one account (Matthew 19:4,5), a fatal blow to the source document critics.

The divine origin of marriage means it is no mere social invention (or convention), but a divine institution for man. Because God joins a man and woman in marriage, it is a permanent union: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:6).

The fact that Adam preceded his wife in creation and that Eve was brought forth from Adam also establishes the reasons why the husband is to exercise headship over his wife in marriage (cf. I Corinthians 11:8-9; I Timothy 2:13). The role of women in the church is not just Paul’s idea, restricted to the time and culture of the Corinthian Christians. The biblical role of women is established on the biblical account of creation (cf. also I Corinthians 14:34).


Having considered the passage in terms of its parts, let us focus our attention on this passage as a whole. No passage in all of the Bible so concisely defines the things which really count in life. Life’s meaning can only be grasped in relationship to the God Who has created man in His image and likeness. While this image has been distorted due to the fall, those who are in Christ are being renewed in Christ’s image:

… and that you be renewed in the Spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth (Ephesians 4:23,24).

… and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him (Colossians 3:10).

Furthermore, man’s meaning in life is not only found in the dignity which God has given him as being created in His image, but in the work which He gives him to do. Men often view work as a curse. While work has been affected by the fall (Genesis 3:17-19), it was given before the fall and is a means of blessing and fulfillment if it is done as unto the Lord (cf. Colossians 3:22-24).

Last, the institution of marriage is given by God to deeply enrich our lives. The work we are to do is much richer and fuller when we share it with God’s counterpart for us. Here, then, is the real essence of life—a recognition of our divinely ordained dignity, our duty, and our delight. Our worth, our work, our wife are all a source of great blessing if they are ‘in the Lord.’

36 I Timothy 2:13.

37 I Corinthians 11:8,12.

38 Genesis 2:23.

39 “Now it is a well-known fact that the book of Genesis is by its own author divided into ten sections, to each of which he gives the title ‘story’ (toledoth); cf. 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, (9); 37:2. This circumstance alone, plus the use of the round number ten, would definitely point to the fact that here the expression, ‘these are the toledoth’ must also be a heading. In all other instances of its use in other books the same fact is observable; cf. Num. 3:1; Ruth 4:18; I Chron. 1:29; it is as always a heading.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 110.

40 “Verse 4b takes us back into the time of the work of creation, more particularly to the time before the work of the third day began, and draws our attention to certain details, which, being details, could hardly have been inserted in chapter one: the fact that certain forms of plant life, namely the kinds that require the attentive care of man in greater measure, had not sprung up. Apparently, the whole work of the third day is in the mind of the writer.” Ibid., p.112.

“I have been very insistent that the first chapter is to be understood chronologically. What is seen by the order of development, the progression of thought. It is seen also by the chronological emphasis--day one, day two, and so on. You do not find that in the second chapter of Genesis. There, instead of giving a chronological order of statement, the Lord is stating matters step by step to prepare for the account of the temptation.” E. J. Young, In The Beginning, (Carlisle, Pennsylvania, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), p. 70.

41 Such appears to be the view of Leupold, I, pp. 113-114.

42 “What are we to understand by the ‘ed? Not a mist! The word is apparently related to a Sumerian word. It seems to refer to subterranean waters, and what we have here is either a breaking forth of water in some way from under the ground, or possibly a river overflowing its banks. I do not think we can be dogmatic here.” Young, pp. 67-68. Cf. also Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), pp. 59-60.

43 “The word ‘Eden’ in Hebrew may mean a delight or a pleasure. I am not sure that that is what it means here. There is a Sumerian word that means a steppe, or a plain, a wide plain, and in the eastern part of this plain God planted a garden. Without being dogmatic I give my opinion that that is what ‘Eden’ means. So the garden is planted.” Young, p. 71.

44 “The verb employed here accords more with the “Yahweh” character of God; yatsar means to ‘mold’ or ‘form.’ It is the word that specifically describes the activity of the potter (Jer. 18:2ff). The idea to be emphasized is that with the particular care and personal attention that a potter gives to his task. God gives tokens of His interest in man, His creature, by molding him as He does.” Leupold, p. 115.

45 Cf. Leupold, p. 129.

46 Dwight Hervey Small, Design For Christian Marriage (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1971), p. 58. Elsewhere Small remarks, “As Elton Trueblood has suggested, a successful marriage is not one in which two people, beautifully matched, find each other and get along happily ever after because of this initial matching. It is, instead, a system by means of which persons who are sinful and contentious are so caught up by a dream and a purpose bigger than themselves that they work through the years, in spite of repeated disappointment, to make the dream come true.” p. 28.

47 “For the expression to give names, in the Hebrew usage of the word ‘name,’ involves giving a designation expressive of the nature or character of the one named. This was not a crude fable, where, according to a Hebrew notion, the accidental ejaculations at the sight of new and strange creatures were retained as names for the future.” Leupold, p. 131.

48 “Tardemah is indeed a ‘deep sleep,’ not a state of ecstasy, as the Greek translators render; nor a ‘hypnotic trance’ (Skinner), for traces of hypnosis are not to be found in the Scriptures. A ‘trance’ might be permissible. The root, however, is that of the verb used in reference to Jonah when he sleeps soundly during the storm.” Ibid, p. 134.

49 “The word tsela translated ‘rib,’ definitely bears this meaning, (contra v. Hofman), although it is not necessary to think only of the bare bone; for, without a doubt, bone and flesh will have been used for her of whom the man afterward says ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,’” (v. 23). Ibid.

50 “The activity of God in fashioning the rib taken from man is described as a building (wayyi ‘bhen). Rather than being an indication of the work of a different author, the verb grows out of the situation as being the most appropriate. It would not have been seemly to use yatsar ‘to mold,’ a verb applicable in the case of clay, not of flesh. ‘Build’ applies to the fashioning of a structure of some importance; it involves constructive effort.” Ibid, p. 135.

51 Or, as Leupold suggests, “Now at length” (p. 136).

52 Leupold, pp. 136-137.

53 Caution must be exercised, I believe, in the application of Bill Gothard’s principle ‘chain of counsel.’ While the wise will seek counsel and some of that may well come from parents, undue dependence is a real danger. The problem is not so much with the principle, but with its application.
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4. The Fall of Man (Genesis 3:1-24)


If the fall of man were to have occurred in our times, one can hardly conceive of the consequences. I would imagine that the American Civil Liberties Union would immediately file suit—against God and in defense of Eve and her husband (the order of the two is not accidental), Adam. The suit would probably be pressed on the grounds of an illegal eviction. “And after all,” we would be told, “this alleged sinful act was performed in the privacy of the garden, and by two consenting adults.” But most of all we would be told that the crime (if indeed there was one) and the punishment were totally out of proportion. Could God really be serious in what this account claims to report? Because of a mere bite of some ‘forbidden fruit’ the man and woman are evicted and will suffer a lifetime of consequence? And more than this, that due to this one act the whole world and all mankind continue to suffer the evils about us?

Those who do not take the Bible seriously or literally have little difficulty here. They simply write off the third chapter of Genesis as a myth. To them it is merely a symbolic story which endeavors to account for things as they are. The details of the fall present no problems for they are not fact, but fiction.

Evangelicals probably have tended to console themselves with the reminder that this was the long ago and the far away. Since the fall occurred so long ago, we do not tend to face the issues that glare at us from this passage.

But several serious questions do arise in connection with the account of man’s fall. Why, for example, must Adam assume primary responsibility when Eve is the principle character in the narrative? To put the question in more contemporary terms, why did Adam get the blame when Eve did all the talking?

Furthermore, we must give thought to the severity of the consequences of man’s partaking of the forbidden fruit in the light of what seems to be a rather trifling matter. What was so evil about this sin that brought about such a harsh response from God?

The structure of the first chapters of Genesis demands this description of man’s fall. In Genesis chapters 1 and 2 we read of a perfect creation which received God’s approval as being ‘good’ (cf. 1:10,12,18,21). In chapter 4 we find jealousy and murder. In the following chapters mankind goes from bad to worse. What happened? Genesis 3 answers this question.

And so this chapter is vital because it explains the world and society as we observe it today. It informs us of the strategies of Satan in tempting men. It explains the reason for the New Testament passages that restrict women from assuming leadership roles in the church. It challenges us to consider whether or not we continue to ‘fall’ as did Adam and his wife.

Here is not a chapter that we will regret having studied, however. It does depict the entrance of sin into the human race and the severity of the consequences of man’s disobedience. But beyond man’s sinfulness and the penalties it demands, there is the revelation of the grace of God. He seeks out the sinner and provides him with a covering for sin. He promises a Savior through whom this whole tragic event will be turned into triumph and salvation.

Man’s Sin

The serpent suddenly appears in verse one rudely and without introduction. Adam, Eve, and the garden we are prepared to find, for we have seen them before. The serpent is said to be one of God’s creatures, therefore, we must take this creature literally. While it was an actual snake, later revelation informs us that the beast was being used by Satan, who is described as a dragon and serpent (cf. II Corinthians 11:3; Revelation 12:9; 20:2).

While we may wish to know the answers to questions pertaining to the origin of evil, Moses had no intention of supplying them for us here. The point God wishes to make is that we are sinful. To pursue more distant causes only removes our responsibility for sin from the focus of our attention.

Notice especially the approach which Satan takes here. He does not come as an athiest, or as one who would initially challenge Eve’s faith in God.54 Satan may manifest himself as a Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but very often it is as an “angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14). Satan often stands behind the pulpit, holding a Bible in his hand.

The wording of Satan’s inquiry is significant. The word ‘indeed’ (verse 1) is dripping with innuendo. The effect of it is this: “Surely God could not have said this, could He?” Also the word God (“Has God said,” (verse 1) is interesting. Moses has been using the expression “the Lord God,” Yahweh Elohim:

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). But when Satan referred to the Lord God it was merely God. This omission is indicative of Satan’s rebellious attitude toward almighty God.

Satan’s initial approach is to deceive, not deny; to cause doubts, not disobedience. Satan came to Eve as an inquirer. He deliberately distorted the command of God, but in such a way as to imply, “I may be wrong here, so correct me if I am mistaken.”

Now Eve should have never begun this conversation. It was a complete overturn of God’s chain of authority. That chain was Adam, Eve, creature. Adam and Eve were to express God’s rule over His creation (1:26). Eve would no doubt have rebuked such a conversation if it were not for the manner in which it was initiated by Satan.

Had Satan begun to challenge the rule of God or Eve’s faith in Him, her choice would have been an easy one. But Satan erroneously stated God’s command. He stated the question so as to appear that he was misinformed and needed to be corrected. Few of us can avoid the temptation of telling another that they are wrong. And so, wonder of wonders, Eve has begun to walk the path of disobedience while supposing that she was defending God to the serpent.

Did you notice that Satan has not mentioned either the tree of life or the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? What a subtle attack! His question brought the forbidden tree to the center of Eve’s thinking, but without any mention of it. She brought it up. By his question Satan has not only engaged Eve in dialogue, but he has also taken her eyes off of the generous provisions of God and caused her to think only of God’s prohibition. Satan does not wish us to ponder the grace of God, but to grudgingly meditate upon His denials.

And this is precisely what has imperceptibly taken place in Eve’s thinking. Eve has revealed her change of attitude by several ‘Freudian slips.’ While God said, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely” (2:16), Eve said, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat” (3:2). Eve omitted “any” and “freely,” the two words which emphasized the generosity of God.

Likewise Eve had a distorted impression of the severity of God in prohibiting the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She expressed God’s instruction in these words: “You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die” (3:3). But God had said, “But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die” (2:17).

While exaggerating the prohibition to the point where even touching the tree was evil, Eve had unconsciously downplayed the judgment of God by omitting the word ‘surely,’ and by failing to report that death would come on the day of the offense. In other words, Eve emphasized God’s severity, but underestimated the fact that judgment would be executed surely and soon.

Satan’s first attack on the woman was that of a religious seeker, in an effort to create doubts about the goodness of God and to fix her attention on what was forbidden as opposed to all that was freely given. The second attack is bold and daring. Now in place of deception and doubt there is denial, followed by the slander of God’s character: “And the serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely shall not die!’” (Genesis 3:4).

God’s words of warning were not to be understood as the promise of certain punishment, but as the mere threats of a self-centered deity.

We may wonder at the dogmatism of Satan’s denial, but it is my opinion that this is precisely what weakened Eve’s opposition. How could anyone be wrong who was so certain? Many today, my friend, are convinced more of the dogmatic tone of a teacher than they are by the doctrinal truthfulness of his teaching. Dogmatism is no assurance of doctrinal accuracy.

Satan’s fatal blow is recorded in verse 5: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

Many have tried to determine precisely what Satan is offering in verse 5. “Your eyes will be opened,” Satan assures them. In other words, they are living in a state of incompletion, of inadequacy. But once the fruit is eaten, they would enter into a new and higher level of existence: they would become “like God.”55

As I understand Satan’s assertion, the statement is deliberately elusive and vague. This would stimulate the curiosity of Eve. To know ‘good and evil’ may be to know everything.56 But how could Eve possibly grasp the specifics of the offer when she did not know what ‘evil’ was.

One of my friends tells me that women are, by nature, more curious than men. I do not know if this is so, but I know that I have an active curiosity as well. The mysteriousness of this possibility of knowing more and living on some higher plane surely invites speculation and consideration.

I find an illustration on this play upon human curiosity in the book of Proverbs:

The woman of folly is boisterous, she is naive, and knows nothing. And she sits at the doorway of her house, on a seat by the high places of the city, calling to those who pass by, who are making their paths straight; ‘Whoever is naive, let him turn in here,’ and to him who lacks understanding she says, ‘stolen water is sweet; and bread eaten in secret is pleasant’ (Proverbs 9:13-17).

The women of folly is herself naive and unknowing, but she entices her victims by offering them a new experience, and the fact that it is illicit simply adds to the appeal (verses 16-17). That is the kind of offer which Satan made to Eve.

Satan, I believe, leaves Eve with her thoughts at this point. His destructive seeds have been planted. While she has not yet eaten the fruit, she has already begun to fall. She has entered into a dialogue with Satan and now she is entertaining blasphemous thoughts about God’s character. She is seriously contemplating disobedience. Sin is not instantaneous, but sequential (James 1:13-15), and Eve is well on her way.

Notice that the tree of life is not even mentioned or considered. Here before Eve were the two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Seemingly it was not a choice between the one or the other. She only saw the forbidden fruit. It, alone, appeared to be ‘good for food and a delight to the eyes’ (verse 6), and yet in 2:9 we were told that all the trees had these features in common. But Eve had eyes only for what was forbidden. And this tree offered some mysterious quality of life which appealed to the woman.

Satan lied outright in assuring Eve that she would not die, but he simply failed to tell her the fine print in his promise of what the forbidden fruit would offer. Having studied that tree for some time (I would imagine), she finally determined that the benefits were too great and the consequences were unreasonable and therefore unlikely. At that moment she snatched the fruit and ate it.

One may shake his head at Eve’s action, but the real wonder is that Adam seemingly without hesitation succumbed to Eve’s invitation to share her disobedience. Moses employs 5 3/4 (Gen. 3:1-6a) verses to describe the deception and disobedience of Eve, but only a part of one sentence to record Adam’s fall (Gen. 3:6b). Why? While I am not as dogmatic on this possibility as I once was, two words of Moses could give us the answer: “with her” (verse 6):

When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eye, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:6).

Is it possible that Eve was never alone with the serpent?57 Could it be that Moses, by these two words, ‘with her,’ is informing us that Adam was present throughout the entire event, but never opened his mouth? If he were there, listening to every word and assenting by his silence, then it is little wonder that he simply took the fruit and ate it when it was offered by Eve.

It is something analogous to my wife and I sitting in the family room. When the doorbell rings, my wife gets up to answer it while I keep on watching my favorite TV program. I can overhear my wife letting in a vacuum cleaner salesman and listening with increasing interest to his sales pitch. I do not want to stop watching my program, so I let the conversation continue, even to my wife signing a contract. If she were then to come into the room and say to me, “Here, you have to sign this, too,” it will come as no shock if I sign it without protest. By default I have allowed my wife to make a decision and I have chosen to go along with it.

If Adam were not present throughout the entire dialogue between the serpent and his wife, one can still conceive of how it may have happened. Eve independently could have eaten the fruit and then hastened to tell her husband of her experience. I can well imagine that Adam would want to know two things. First, he would want to know if she felt any better—that is, did the fruit have any beneficial effect on her. Secondly, he would want to know it if had any detrimental effect. After all, God had said that they would die that very day. Had she found the fruit pleasurable and as yet sensed no harmful effect, Adam would surely be inclined to follow his wife’s example. What a tragic error!

Verses 7 and 8 are particularly informative, because they instruct us that sin has its consequences as well as its punishment. God has not yet prescribed any punishment for the sins of Adam and Eve, and yet the consequences are inseparably coupled with the crime. The consequences of sin mentioned here are shame and separation.

The nakedness which Adam and Eve shared without guilt was now a source of shame. Sweet innocence was lost forever. Remember, there was no man in the garden but the two of them. But they were ashamed to face each other without clothing. Not only could they not face each other as they had before, but they dreaded facing God. When He came to have sweet fellowship with them, they hid themselves in fear.

God had said that they would die in the day that they ate the forbidden fruit. Some have puzzled over this promise of judgment. While the process of physical death began on that fateful day, they did not die physically. Let us recall that spiritual death is separation from God:

And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (II Thessalonians 1:9).

Isn’t it amazing that the spiritual death of Adam and Eve occurred immediately—that is, there was now a separation from God. And this separation was not one imposed by God; it was initiated by men.

I must digress to say that the spiritual death experienced by Adam and his wife is the same as that of today. It is the alienation of man from God. And it is that which man himself chooses. It is his preference. Hell is God’s giving men both what they want and what they deserve (cf. Revelation 16:5-6).

God Seeks, Sifts, and Sentences Man

The separation which Adam and Eve brought about is that which God seeks to bridge. God sought out man in the garden. While Satan’s question was designed to bring about the fall of man, God’s questions seek his reconciliation and restoration.

Notice that no questions are asked of the serpent. There is no intention of restoration for Satan. His doom is sealed. Take note also of the order or sequence here. Man fell in this order: serpent, Eve, Adam. This is the opposite of God’s chain of command. While God questioned in the order of authority (Adam, Eve, snake), He sentenced in the order of the fall (snake, Eve, Adam). The fall was, in part, the result of the reversal of God’s order.

Adam is first sought by God with the question, “where are you?” (verse 9). Adam reluctantly admitted his shame and fear, probably hoping that God would not press him on this issue. But God probed more deeply, seeking an admission of wrongdoing: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (verse 11).

Thrusting at least a part of the responsibility back upon the Creator, Adam blurted out, “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (verse 12).

Both Eve and God must share in the responsibility for the fall, Adam implied. His part was mentioned last and with as little detail as possible. And so it will always be with those who are guilty. We always find mitigating circumstances.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives (Proverbs 16:2).

Then Eve is questioned, “What is this you have done?” (verse 13).

Her response was little different (in essence) than her husband’s: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (verse 13).

It was true, of course. The serpent did deceive her (I Timothy 2:14), and she did eat. The guilt of both, while a feeble effort to excuse or at least diminish human responsibility was made, had been clearly established.

Such must always be the case, I believe. Before punishment can be meted out, the wrong-doing must be proven and acknowledged. Otherwise punishment will not have its corrective effect on the guilty. The penalties are now prescribed by God, given in the order of the events of the fall.

The Serpent Sentenced (vss. 14-15)

The serpent is first addressed and his punishment established. The creature, as the instrument of Satan, is cursed and subject to an existence of humiliation, crawling in the dust (verse 14).

Verse 15 addresses the serpent behind the serpent, Satan, the deadly dragon: “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; … ” (Rev 12:9).

There is to be, first of all, a personal animosity between Eve and the serpent: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman” (verse 15).

Such enmity is easy to comprehend. But this opposition will broaden: “And between your seed and her seed” (verse 15).

Here, I believe God refers to the battle of the centuries between the people of God and the followers of the devil (cf. John 8:44ff).

Finally, there is the personal confrontation between the seed58 of Eve, the Messiah, and Satan: “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel” (verse 15).

In this confrontation Satan will be mortally wounded while the Messiah will receive a painful, but not fatal wound.

How beautifully this prophecy portrays the coming Savior, Who will reverse the events of the fall. This is that of which Paul wrote in retrospect in the fifth chapter of Romans:

Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of Adam’s offense, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ (Romans 5:14-17).

While the prophecy of verse 15 is somewhat veiled, it becomes more and more evident in the light of subsequent revelation. It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that the Jews, according to the Targum, regarded this passage as Messianic.59

The Woman’s Penalty (vs. 16)

It is only fitting that since Satan attacked mankind through the woman that God would bring about man’s salvation and Satan’s destruction through her. This has already been revealed to Satan in verse 15. Every child born to woman must have troubled Satan.

While salvation would come through the birth of a child, it would not be a painless process. Woman’s sentence comes at the center of her existence. It deals with the bearing of her children. But in the midst of her labor pains she could know that God’s purpose for her was being realized, and that, perhaps, the Messiah would be born through her.

In addition to labor pains, the woman’s relationship to her husband was prescribed. Adam should have led and Eve should have followed. But such was not the case in the fall. Therefore, from this time on women were to be ruled by men: “Yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (verse 16).

Several things must be said concerning this curse. First of all, it is one which is for all women, not just Eve. Just as all women must share in the pains of childbirth, so they must be subject to the authority of their husbands. This does not in any way imply any inferiority on the part of women. Neither does it justify the restriction of voting rights or withholding equal pay and so on.

For those who refuse to submit to the biblical teaching concerning the role of women in the church—that women must not lead or teach men, and not even speak publicly (I Corinthians 14:33b-36; I Timothy 2:9-15)—let me say this. The role of women in the church and in marriage is not restricted to Paul’s teaching, nor is it to be viewed as only related to the immoral context of Corinth. It is a biblical doctrine, which has its origin in the third chapter of Genesis. That is why Paul wrote,

Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says (I Corinthians 14:34).

To those men and women who wish to disregard God’s instruction I must say, that is precisely what Satan desires. Just as he drew Eve’s attention to the restriction of the one tree, so he wants women to ponder the restriction placed upon women today. “Throw off your shackles,” he urges, “Find self-fulfillment.” “God is keeping you from what is best,” he whispers. And it is a lie! God’s rules have reasons, whether we understand them or not.

For the men, I hasten to add that this verse (and the biblical teaching on the role of women) is no proof text for male superiority or for some kind of dictatorship in marriage. We are to lead by love. Our leadership is to be at our own personal sacrifice, seeking what is best for our wife (Ephesians 5:25ff). Biblical leadership is that patterned after our Lord (cf. Philippians 2:1-8).

The Punishment of Men (vss. 17-20)

Just as Eve’s punishment related to the center of her life, so is the case with Adam. He had been placed in the garden, now he will have to earn a living from the ground “by the sweat of his brow” (verses 17-19).

You will notice that while the serpent is cursed, it is only the ground which is cursed here, and not Adam or Eve. God cursed Satan because He does not intend to rehabilitate or redeem him. But already the purpose of God to save men has been revealed (verse 15).

Not only will Adam have to battle the ground to earn a living, he will eventually return to dust. Spiritual death has already occurred (cf. verses 7-8). Physical death has begun. Apart from the life which God gives, man will simply (though slowly) return to his original state—dust (cf. 2:7).

Adam’s response to God’s penalties and promise is revealed in verse 20: “Now the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living.”

I believe this act evidenced a simple faith on the part of Adam. He accepted his guilt and punishment, but focused upon the promise of God that through the offspring of woman the Savior would come. Eve’s salvation (and ours as well!) would come through her submission to her husband and through the bearing of children. Adam’s naming the woman, Eve, which means ‘living’ or ‘life’ showed that life would come through Eve.

God is not just a God of penalties, but of gracious provision. Thus, He made for Adam and his wife garments from the skins of animals to cover their nakedness. A veiled prophecy of redemption through the shedding of blood is not, in my opinion, an abuse of this verse.

A Severe Mercy

Satan’s promise had, in a backhanded way, come true. Adam and Eve had, in a sense, become like God in the knowing of good and evil (verse 22). But there is a great difference as well as some similarity. Both man and God knew good and evil, but in a vastly different way.

Perhaps the difference can best be illustrated in this way. A doctor can know of cancer by virtue of his education and experience as a doctor. That is, he has read of cancer, heard lectures on cancer, and seen it in his patients. A patient, also, can know of cancer, but as its victim. While both know of cancer, the patient would wish he had never heard of it. Such is the knowledge which Adam and Eve came to possess.

God had promised salvation to come in time through the birth of Messiah, who would destroy Satan. Adam and Eve might be tempted to gain eternal life through the eating of the fruit of the tree of life. They had chosen knowledge over life. Now, as the Israelites too late tried to possess Canaan (Numbers 14:39-45), so fallen man might attempt to gain life through the tree of life in the garden.

It would seem that had Adam and Eve eaten of the tree of life they would have lived forever (verse 22). This is the reason God sent them out of the garden (verse 23). In verse 24 the ‘sending out’ of the two is more dramatically called ‘driving out.’ Stationed at the entrance of the garden are the cherubim and the flaming sword.

“How cruel and severe,” some would be tempted to protest. In today’s legal jargon, it would probably be called ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ But think a moment, before you speak rashly. What would have happened had God not driven this couple from the garden and banned their return? I can answer it in one word—hell. Hell is giving men both what they want and what they deserve (cf. Revelation 16:6) forever. Hell is spending eternity in sin, separate from God:

And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (II Thessalonians 1:9).

God was merciful and gracious in putting Adam and Eve out of the garden. He kept them from eternal punishment. Their salvation would not come in a moment, but in time, not easily, but through pain—but it would come. They must trust Him to accomplish it.


I cannot help but think of Paul’s words when I read this chapter, “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22).

There is sin, and there is judgment. But the chapter is interlaced with grace. God sought out the sinners. He sentenced them as well, but with a promise of salvation to come. And keeping them from hell on earth, He provides them with a covering for the time and full redemption in time. What a Savior!

Before we focus our attention on the application of this chapter to our own lives, consider for a moment what this Passage would mean to the people of Moses’ day. They had already been delivered out of Egypt and had been given the Law. They had not yet entered into the promised land.

The purpose of the books of Moses (which includes Genesis) is given in Deuteronomy chapter 31:

And it came about, when Moses finished writing the words of this law in a book until they were complete, that Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, ‘Take this book of the law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, that it may remain there as a witness against you. For I know your rebellion and your stubbornness; behold, while I am still alive with you today, you have been rebellious against the Lord; how much more, then, after my death? Assemble to me all the elders of your tribes and your officers that I may speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to witness against them. For I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands’ (Deuteronomy 31:24-29).

In many respects Eden was a type of the promised land and Canaan was the antitype. Canaan, like Paradise, was a place of beauty and plenty, a ‘land of milk and honey’ (cf. Deut 31:20). Israel would experience blessing and prosperity so long as they were obedient to the Word of God (Deut 28:1-14). If God’s laws were set aside, they would experience hardship, defeat, poverty, and be cast out of the land (28:15-68). In effect, Canaan was an opportunity for Israel to experience, to a limited degree, the blessings of Eden. Here, as in Eden, God’s people were faced with a decision to make: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity” (Deut 30:15).

Genesis chapter three is far from academic or mere history. It was a word of warning. What happened in Eden would again occur in Canaan (cf. Deuteronomy 31:16ff.). They would be tempted to disobey, just as Adam and Eve were. Serious consideration of this chapter and its implications were essential to Israel’s future.

The chapter is distinctly prophetic as well, for Israel disobeyed and chose the way of death, just as the first couple in the garden. As Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, Israel was put out of the land. But there is hope as well, for God promised a Redeemer, Who would be born of woman (Gen 3:15). God would chasten Israel and bring her back to the land (Deut 30:1ff.). Even then Israel would not be faithful to her God. She must look to the Messiah of Genesis 3:15 to bring her final and permanent restoration. Israel’s history, then, is summarized in Genesis 3.

For us there are many applications. We must not be ignorant of Satan’s devices (II Corinthians 2:11). The manner of his temptation is repeated in the testimony of our Lord in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). And so he will continue to tempt us today.

Genesis chapter three is vital to Christians today because it alone explains things as they are. Our world is a blend of both beauty and beastliness, of loveliness and that which is ugly. The beauty which remains is evidence of the goodness and greatness of the God Who created all things (cf. Romans 1:18ff). The ugliness is the evidence of man’s sinfulness (Romans 8:18-25).

From what I can tell, the present state of God’s creation was one of the crucial elements in Darwin’s move from orthodoxy to doubt and denial. He did not behold the orderliness of creation and say to himself, “Oh, this must have occurred by chance.” Instead, he looked at the cruelty and ugliness and concluded, “How could a loving, all-powerful God be responsible for this?” The answer, of course, is found in this text in Genesis chapter three: man’s sin has turned God’s creation inside-out.

The only solution is for God to do something to bring about redemption and restoration. This has been accomplished in Jesus Christ. The penalty for man’s sins have been borne by Him. The consequences for Adam’s sins need not destroy us. The choice which confronts us is this: Do we wish to be united with the first Adam or the last? In the first Adam we are constituted sinners and are subject to physical and spiritual death. In the last we become new creatures, with eternal life (physical and spiritual). God has not placed two trees before us, but two men: Adam and Christ. We must decide with whom we will identify. In one of these two our eternal future rests.

There is much to be learned here about sin. Essentially sin is disobedience. Notice that the initial sin did not seem very serious. It might be thought of as a trivial thing. The seriousness of sin can be seen in two significant facts, which are clear from our text.

First, sin is serious because of its roots. The eating of the forbidden fruit was not the essence of the sin, but merely its expression. It is not the source of sin, but its symbol. The partaking of that fruit is similar to the sharing of the elements, the bread and the wine, of the Lord’s table, that is, the act expresses something much more deep and profound. So the root of the sin of Adam and Eve was rebellion, unbelief, and ingratitude. Their act was a deliberate choice to disobey a clear instruction from God. It refused to gratefully accept the good things as from God and the one prohibition as for their good as well. Worst of all, they viewed God as being evil, miserly and threatened, as Satan had portrayed Him.

Secondly, sin is serious because of its fruits. Adam and Eve did not experience a higher form of existence, but shame and guilt. It did not provide them with more to enjoy, but spoiled what they previously experienced without shame. Worse yet, it brought about the downfall of the entire race. The beginnings of the effects of the fall are seen in the rest of the Bible. We see the results of that sin today, in our lives and in society. The result of sin is judgment. That judgment is both present and future (cf. Romans 1: 26-27).

Let me tell you, my friend, that Satan always emphasizes the present pleasures of sin while keeping our minds from their consequences. Sin is never worth the price. It is like the rides at the State Fair: the ride is short and the price is high—incredibly high.

But let us not concentrate upon the sins of Adam and Eve. We should not be shocked to learn that the temptations are the same for men today as in the garden. And the sins are the same as well.

Madison Avenue has taken up the cause of the evil one. Advertising urges us to forget the many blessings we have and to concentrate upon what we do not possess. They suggest that life cannot be experienced fully without some product. For example, we are told, “Coke adds life.” No, it doesn’t; it simply rots your teeth. And then we are urged not to consider the cost or the consequences of indulging ourselves with this one more thing which we need. We can ‘charge it to MasterCard.’

I suspect that there is a bit of a smile forming on your face. You may suppose that I am really getting far afield. Consider what the Apostle Paul tells us about the meaning of Old Testament truths to our present experience:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved (I Corinthians 10:1-6).

What kept Adam and Eve from everlasting blessing was their desire to have pleasure at the cost of unbelief and disobedience. Such, Paul writes, was also the case with Israel (I Cor 10:1-5). The same temptations face us, but God has given us sufficient means to be have victory. What are these means?

(1) We are to understand that denials (doing without, prohibitions) come from the hand of a good and loving God:

No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11).

(2) We must realize that denials are a test of our faith and obedience:

And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).

Doing without is not God’s keeping us from blessing, but preparing us for it:

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God, than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward (Heb 11:24-26; cf. Deut 8:6ff)

(3) When we are kept from those things which we think we want we must be careful not to meditate upon what is denied, but upon what is graciously given, and by Whom. Then we must do what we know to be God’s will.

But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God (Deut 20:17-18).

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if any thing worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things; and the God of peace shall be with you (Philippians 4:6-9).

Almost daily we find ourselves repeating the sins of Adam and Eve. We ponder what we are forbidden to have. We begin to distrust the goodness of God and His graciousness to us. We worry about things that are really inconsequential. And often, in unbelief, we take matters into our own hands.

Many times I find Christians seriously contemplating sin, knowing it is wrong, and realizing that there will be consequences, but foolishly supposing that the pleasure of sin is greater than its price. How wrong! That was the error of Adam and Eve.

May God enable us to praise Him for those things which He forbids and to trust Him for those things which we need and He promises to provide.

54 I like the way Helmut Thielicke puts this:

“The overture of this dialogue is thoroughly pious, and the serpent introduces himself as a completely serious and religious beast. He does not say: “I am an atheistic monster and now I am going to take your paradise, your innocence and loyalty, and turn it all upside down.” Instead he says: “Children, today we’re going to talk about religion, we’re going to discuss the ultimate things.” How the World Began (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), p. 124.

55 Some point out that ‘God’ (‘like God”), in verse 5, is the name Elohim, which is plural. They suggest that we should translate it, “You shall be like gods.” Such a possibility, while grammatically permissible, does not seem worthy of consideration. The same word (Elohim) is found in the first part of verse 5, where God is referred to.

56 “So far as knowledge of good and evil is concerned, one must remember that the Hebrew yd’ (‘to know’) never signifies purely intellectual knowing, but in a much wider sense an ‘experiencing,’ a ‘becoming acquainted with,’ even an ‘ability.’ ‘To know in the ancient world is always to be able as well’ (Wellhaussen). And secondly, ‘good and evil’ may not be limited only to the moral realm. ‘To speak neither good nor evil’ means to say nothing (Gen 31.24,29; 2 Sam 13.22); to do neither good nor evil means to do nothing (Zeph 1:12); to know neither good nor evil (said of children or old people) means to understand nothing (yet) or (any longer) (Deut 1:39; 2 Sam. 19:35 f.) “Good and evil” is therefore a formal way of saying what we mean by our colorless ‘everything’; and here too one must take in its meaning as far as possible.” Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 86-87.

57 “She partakes of the fruit, she gives to her husband, and he eats also. Someone may ask: ‘Where was Adam all the time?’ The Bible does not tell us. I assume he was present there, because she gave the fruit to him: ‘her husband was with her.’ More we cannot say for the simple reason that the Bible does not say more.” E. J. Young, In the Beginning (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), p. 102.

58 The word seed (zera) can be used collectively as well as individually (cf. Genesis 4:25; I Samuel 1:11; II Samuel 7:12). Here in Genesis 3:15 it is used in both senses, I believe. Kidner states, “The latter, like the seed of Abraham, is both collective (cf. Rom 16:20) and, in the crucial struggle, individual (cf. Gal 3:16), since Jesus as the last Adam summed up mankind in Himself.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 71.

59 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 170.
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5. The Fruits of the Fall (Genesis 4:1-26)


When we sin we often do so with the futile hope that we shall obtain the maximum amount of pleasure at the minimum penalty. It seldom works that way, however.

I once heard the story of a man and his wife who decided to go to a drive-in movie. They thought the price was too high and plotted to put one over on the management of the theater. When they were within a short distance of the drive-in, the husband climbed into the trunk of the car. The arrangement was that his wife would let him out after she was inside the theater.

All went off as planned, at least as far as getting past the ticket seller was concerned. But when the wife got to the back of the car to let her husband out of the trunk, she discovered that he had the trunk keys in his pocket. In desperation she had to call the manager, the police, and the rescue squad. Neither saw the movie and the trunk had to be cut open. Such is the path of sin. The ride is short and the price is high.

At first glance, the taking of the forbidden fruit and eating of it seemed like a trivial matter, a mere misdemeanor. But Genesis chapter three makes it clear that it was a matter of gravity. Man had chosen to believe Satan rather than God. Adam and Eve had concluded that God was unduly harsh and severe. They decided to seek the path of self-fulfillment as opposed to servanthood .

The serpent had suggested, indeed, he had boldly asserted, that no harmful effects would be experienced in disobedience to God, only a higher level of existence. But in this fourth chapter of Genesis we quickly see that Satan’s promises were blatant lies. Here the real wages of sin begin to appear.

The Fruit of the
Fall in the Life of Cain

The sexual union of Adam and Eve produced a first child, a son whom Eve named Cain. This name is probably to be understood as a play on words. It sounds similar to the Hebrew word, Qanah, which means ‘to get’ or ‘to acquire.’ In today’s vernacular this son would probably have been named ‘Got.’60

The significance of the name is that it reflects Eve’s faith, for she said, “I have gotten (Qaniti, from Qanah) a manchild with the help of the Lord” (Genesis 4:1).

While there is some discussion among Bible scholars as to the precise meaning of this statement,61 Eve acknowledged the activity of God in the gift of her son. I believe that Eve understood from the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 that one of her offspring would bring about her redemption. Perhaps she looked upon Cain as her redeemer. If so she was destined for disappointment.

While she may have been mistaken in her hopes for a speedy victory over the serpent by her firstborn child, she was correct in looking for God’s deliverance through her seed. She was, therefore, correct in general but mistaken in particular.

Eve’s optimism seems to have waned by the time of the birth of her second son, Abel. His name meant ‘vanity,’ ‘breath,’ or ‘vapor.’ Perhaps Eve had learned by this time that the consequences of sin were not to be quickly done away with. Life would involve struggle and a good measure of seemingly futile effort. Cain was the symbol of Eve’s hope; Abel, of her despair.

Abel was a keeper of flocks, while Cain was a tiller of the soil. Nowhere does Moses imply that one of these occupations is inferior to the other. Neither is this account some kind of predecessor to the television shows which have worn thin the theme of the struggle between the dirt farmers and the cattlemen.

Cain’s problem is not to be found in his means of livelihood, but in the man himself:

So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the Lord of the fruit of the ground. And Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard … (Genesis 4:3-5a).

The Israelites who first read these words of Moses would have little difficulty in grasping the problem with the sacrifice of Cain. They received this as a part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. As such, they understood that man could not approach God without the shedding of sacrificial blood. While there were non-bloody sacrifices,62 man could only have access to God through shed blood. Cain’s offering fell short of God’s requirements of the Law.

“But Cain did not have such revelation!” someone may object. Quite true. But then we must all admit that none of us knows what revelation he did have. Any speculation on the subject is just that—mere conjecture.

Having said this, I must point out that it is not necessary for Moses to have told us. His contemporaries had more than sufficient basis to grasp the significance of shed blood, because of the meticulous prescriptions of the Law regarding sacrifices and worship Christians of our own time have the advantage of seeing the matter much more clearly in the light of the cross, and from the realization that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

While we do not know what God revealed to Adam or to his sons, we are assured that they knew what they were to do. This is clear from God’s words to Cain:

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Genesis 4:6-7).

God’s question clearly implies that Cain’s anger was ill-founded. While we do not know the specifics of what ‘doing well’ involved, Cain did. Cain’s problem was not one of lack of instruction, but of insurrection and rebellion against God.

Cain, like so many people today, wanted to come to God, but he wanted to do it his way. This may work at the hamburger stand. They may let you do it ‘your way’ as the commercial says, but God will not. As a friend of mine says, ‘You can go to heaven God’s way, or you can go to hell any way you please.’

Notice that Cain was not an irreligious person. He believed in God, and he wanted God’s approval. But he wanted to come to God on his terms, not on God’s. Hell, as I have said before, will be populated with religious people.

Cain did not want to approach God through shed blood. Cain preferred to offer God the fruit of his labors. He had a green thumb, and bloodstained hands had no appeal to him. Men today differ little. Many are those who, like the demons (cf. James 2:19), believe in God, and who acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. But they refuse to submit to Him as Lord. They refuse His sacrificial and substitutionary death upon the cross as the payment for their sins. They wish to come to God on their own terms. The message of the gospel is very clear: there is no approach to God except through that which Christ has earned through the death of the cross.

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’ (John 14:6).

… And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

… And according to the Law, one may almost say, all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness ( Hebrews 9:22).

… but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (I Peter 1:19). (Cf. also Luke 22:20; Acts 20:28; Romans 3:25; 5:9; Ephesians 1:7).

How gracious God was to seek out Cain and to gently confront him with his sinful anger. How clear was the message of restoration and the warning concerning the danger he faced. But the counsel of God was rejected.

This week a friend of mine pointed out to me the wisdom of God’s rebuke. How easy it would have been for God to have corrected Cain by comparing him with Abel. That is the way we parents often handle the discipline of our children. But God did not say “Why don’t you worship me like your brother Abel does?” God pointed Cain to the standard which He had set, not to the example of his brother. Nevertheless, Cain made the connection. Cain’s offering was not accepted; Abel’s was. God gently admonished Cain and instructed him that the way to win His approval was to submit to the divine pattern of approach to God. Cain concluded that the solution was to eliminate his competition—to murder his brother.

One thing must be clear. It was not just the sacrifice that was the problem. Much more, it was the person who sought to present the offering. Moses tells us,

And the Lord had regard for Abel and for his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard (verse 4b,5a).

The source of the problem was Cain, and the symptom was the sacrifice.

Verse 7 is pregnant with implications:

If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Genesis 4:7).

The way to get over his depression was to change his performance. He would feel better as he did better. In one sense Cain was right in being angry with himself. He was wrong in his animosity toward his brother and his God.

If Cain chose to ignore God’s gentle prodding, let him be fully aware of the dangers ahead. Sin lay waiting for him like a crouching animal. It wanted to master him, but he must master it.63 Cain is faced with a decision and held accountable for his choice. He need not succumb to sin, just as we should not, because God always gives sufficient grace to resist temptation (cf. I Corinthians 10:13).

When the two men were in the open field (seemingly where there could be no witness, cf. Deuteronomy 22:25-27), Cain killed his brother. God now came to Cain in judgment.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:9).

Cain’s insolence is incredible. Not only does he lie in denying any knowledge of Abel’s whereabouts, he seems to rebuke God for the question. There may even be a sarcastic play on words to the effect, “I don’t know. Shall I shepherd the shepherd?”64

The ground was cursed on account of Adam and Eve (3:17). Now the earth has been stained with the blood of man, and that spilled by his brother. That blood now cries out to God for justice (4:10). God, therefore, confronts Cain with his sin. The time for repentance has passed and now the sentence is passed on Cain by the Judge of the earth.

It is not the ground which is cursed again, but it is Cain.

And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it shall no longer yield its strength to you; you shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth (Genesis 4:11-12).

Cain had been blessed with a ‘green thumb.’ He had attempted to approach God through the fruits of his labor. Now God cursed him in the area of his strength and sin. Never again will Cain be able to sustain himself by tilling the soil. While Adam had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow (3:19), Cain could not survive by farming. For him the curse of chapter three had been intensified. For Adam farming was difficult; for Cain it was impossible.

Cain’s response to the first rebuke of God had been sullenness and silence, followed by sin. Cain is no longer silent once his sentence has been pronounced, but there is no indication of repentance, only regret.

And Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, Thou hast driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Thy face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me’ ( Genesis 4:13-14).

Cain’s words have a familiar ring to any parent. At times a child is truly sorry for his disobedience. At other times he is only sorry that he was caught, and bitterly bemoans the severity of punishment he is to receive. All Cain does is to repeat his sentence bitterly, and express his fear that men will treat him as he did his brother.

God assured Cain that while human life meant little to him, He valued it highly. He would not even allow Cain’s blood to be shed at this time.65 We cannot be sure about the exact nature of the sign that was appointed for Cain. It could have been a visible mark, but it seems more likely that it may have been some kind of event that confirmed to Cain that God would not allow him to be killed.66

Verse 15 has a two-fold purpose. The first is to assure Cain that he would not die a violent death at the hand of man. The second is a clear warning to anyone who should consider taking his life. Notice the words, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold” (Genesis 4:15), are not spoken to Cain, but of Cain. God did not say, “Whoever kills you,” but “Whoever kills Cain.”

A partial genealogy is given of the line of Cain. Moses employed this, I believe, to evidence the ungodliness of Cain (and the sinfulness of man commenced at the Fall) in his descendants, and to serve as a contrast to the genealogy of Adam through Seth in chapter 5.

Cain settled in the land of Nod. After the birth of his son, Enoch, Cain established a city named after his child. It would seem that the founding of this city was an act of rebellion against God, who had said he would be a vagrant and a wanderer (4:12).

Lamech manifests mankind at his lowest point of descent.

And Lamech took to himself two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other, Zillah. And Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. And his brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. As for Zillah, she also gave birth to Tubal-cain, the forger of all implements of bronze and iron, and the sister of Tubal-cain was Naamah. And Lamech said to his wives, ‘Adah and Zillah, Listen to my voice, you wives of Lamech, give heed to my speech, for I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; if Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’ (Genesis 4:19-24).

Lamech appears to be the first to have departed from the divine ideal for marriage as described in chapter two. One wife was not sufficient for him so he took two, Adah and Zillah.

We would expect Moses to have only condemning words for Lamech. Surely nothing good could come from such a man. And yet, it is from his offspring that great cultural and scientific contributions come. One son became the father of nomadic herdsmen, another was the first of a line of musicians, and another was the first of the great metal workers.

We must pause to observe that even man at his worst is not without the ability to produce that which is deemed beneficial to mankind. We should also hasten to say that man’s contributions can quickly and easily be adapted to the ruin of men. Music can entice and allure men into sin. The skills of the metal worker can be used to produce implements of sin (e.g. idols, cf. Exodus 32:1ff.).

To the ungodly, the line of Cain was the source of much that was praiseworthy. But the real fruits of sin are revealed in the words of Lamech to his wives. Adam and Eve had sinned, but repentance and faith are implied after their sentence was pronounced. Cain murdered his brother Abel, and while he never fully repented, neither could he defend his actions.

Lamech brings us to the point in the history of man where sin is not only committed boldly, but boastfully. He bragged to his wives of his murder. More than this he boasted that his sin was committed against a mere youngster who had only struck him. This murder was brutal, bold, and volatile. Worst of all, Lamech shows a disdain and disregard for God’s word: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:24).

God had spoken these words to assure Cain that he would not be killed by the hand of man. He also warned men of the seriousness of such an act. These words were spoken to reveal the fact that God valued human life. Lamech twisted and distorted them as a boast to his violence and aggressive hostility toward man and God. Here man has quickly plummeted to the bottom of the barrel!

A Glimmer of Grace

In Romans chapter 5 the apostle Paul has much to say about the fall of man in the book of Genesis. But in this same chapter we find these words of hope: “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20).

Sin surely abounded in the line of Cain, but the chapter will not end without a glimmer of the grace of God.

And Adam had relations with his wife again; and she gave birth to a son, and named him Seth, for, she said, ‘God has appointed me another offspring in place of Abel; for Cain killed him.’ And to Seth, to him also a son was born; and he called his name Enosh. Then men began to call upon the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:25-26).

Eve had hoped for salvation through her first son, Cain. It would surely not come from him or from his descendants. Neither could it come from Abel. But another son was given whose name, Seth, means “appointed.” Not only was he a substitute for Abel (verse 25), he was the seed through whom the Savior would be born.

Seth, too, had a son, Enosh. It began to become clear that the deliverance Adam and Eve hoped for was not to be soon, but it was nevertheless certain. And so it was that in those days men began ‘to call upon the name of the Lord’ (verse 26). I understand this to be the commencement of corporate worship.67 In the midst of a perverse and crooked generation there was a believing remnant that trusted in God and hoped for His salvation.


The New Testament is by far our best commentary on this chapter and informs us of its principles and practical applications.

This account is not simply the record of two men who lived in the long ago and the far away. My Bible informs me that it is the description of two ways, the way of Abel and the way of Cain.

Woe to them! For they have gone the way of Cain, and for pay they have rushed headlong into the error of Balaam, and perished in the rebellion of Korah! (Jude 11).

Jude warns his readers of those who are spiritual counterfeits (verse 4). They are not saved, but they endeavor to pass as believers and to pervert the true faith and to divert men from experiencing the grace of God. In verse 11 these men are described as being like Cain. They are like him in that they are rebels who hide under the banner of religion.

Let me simply say that the world is full of religion today, and hell will be full of religionists. There is a substantial difference, however, between those who are righteous and those who are religious. Those who are truly saved are those who, like Abel, approach God as a sinner, and who grasp the fact that only through the shed blood of the perfect Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, are they saved. All others attempt to win God’s approval by offering up the works of their hands. The ‘way of Cain’ is an ever increasing line of those who want to get to heaven ‘their way’ and not His way.

The irony of the way of Cain is that it is clearly marked. While they appear to offer good works to God, their hearts are corrupt.

For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another; not as Cain, who was of the evil one, and slew his brother. And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous (I John 3:11-12).

Those who are evil cannot stand those who are truly righteous. They proclaim brotherly love but they fail to practice it. It is no wonder, then, that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day rejected Him and put him to death with the help of the Gentiles. This is what John explained in his gospel.

In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness did not comprehend it.… There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him (John 1:4-5; 9-11).

For those who would walk in the way of Cain there is little reason for hope. There may be the illusory gains of culture or technology, but they must ultimately suffer the fate of Cain. They must spend their days away from the presence of God and they will find their days on earth full of sorrow and regret ultimately.

We can rejoice that there is another better way, and that is the way of Abel.

By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained the testimony that he was righteous, God testifying about his gifts, and through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks (Hebrews 11:4).

In order that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the house of God; yet, I tell you, it shall be charged against this generation (Luke 11:50-51).

And to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24).

That which made the difference between Cain and Abel was faith. Abel trusted not in himself, but in God. His sacrifice was a better sacrifice because it evidenced his faith and it reflected that the object of his faith was God. No doubt he also had some grasp of the value of the shed blood of an innocent victim.

But Abel was more than an example of an early believer, he was, according to our Lord, a prophet. Perhaps by his lips, but surely by his works, he proclaimed to his brother the way of access to God. He was also a prophet in that he predicted in his death the fate of many who would come later with a word from God to unbelieving men.

While God valued the blood of Abel that was shed for his faith, it is not to be compared with that better blood that was shed by Jesus Christ. Abel’s blood was a testimony to his faith. Christ’s blood is the cleansing agent by which men are purged of their sins and delivered from the penalty of eternal separation from God. Have you come to trust in the blood of Christ as God’s provision, His only provision for your sin? Why not do so today.

60 Cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker-Book House, 1942), I, p. 189.

61 Literally Eve replied, “I have gotten a son, the Lord.” Does she believe that she has begotten the Savior? This is possible, of course. Perhaps more likely she has acknowledged that God has enabled her to bear a child, a child through whom her deliverance may soon come.

62 “The offering here is a minha, which in human affairs was a gift of homage or allegiance and, as a ritual term, could describe either animal or more often cereal offerings (e.g. I Sa. 2:l7; Lu. 2:1).” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 75.

63 These words are nearly identical with those in verse 16 of chapter three: “Yet your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” Is God here suggesting that the same temptation (or at least the same tempter) which Eve and Adam failed to resist is now facing Cain?

64 Gerhard VonRad, Genesis (Philadephia: The Westminster Press, 1972), p. 106.

65 It is not until chapter nine that God instituted capital punishment. It would seem that the greater punishment for Cain was a ‘life sentence’ as a vagabond and wanderer, than to have put him to death.

66 VonRad suggests a tattoo or something similar (page 107). The same word for sign is found in 9:13 and 17:11.

67 “Since this calling out by the use of the name definitely implies public worship, we have here the first record of regular public worship. Private worship is presupposed as preceding. The great importance of public worship, both as a matter of personal necessity as well as a matter of public confession, is beautifully set forth by this brief record.” Leupold, p. 228.
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6. Coming to Grips with Genealogies (Genesis 5:1-32)


My parents were privileged to spend a year teaching in Taiwan. While they were in Taipei, they met a young Chinese man who wanted to learn to speak and read English more fluently. My father agreed to meet with ‘Johnny’ once a week. My father assured Johnny that there would be no charge for the English lessons and informed him that the text for their studies would be the gospel of Matthew. Incidentally, Johnny was saved in chapter 16.

One of the tapes which my folks sent us from Taiwan at Christmas time contained a recording of Johnny reading Matthew in English. If you can imagine it, he was reading the genealogy of Matthew chapter 1. What an introduction to the English language and to the Bible!

The genealogies have never been the best read portions of the Word of God. Ray Stedman tells the story of an old Scots minister who was reading from the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

He started reading, ‘Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac beget Jacob, and Jacob begat Judah,’ and he looked on ahead and saw the list to follow and said, ‘and they kept on begetting one another all the way down this page and halfway into the next.’68

If we are honest, that is what most of us do with the genealogies of the Bible—we skip them. In my teaching through the book of Genesis, I must admit I seriously considered doing the same thing, merely passing by Genesis chapter 5. Leupold, in one of the classic commentaries on the book of Genesis has this word of advice to preachers: “Not every man would venture to use this chapter as a text.”69

And believe me, not all have. There is a verse of Scripture which will not let us pass by Genesis 5 without a serious study of this genealogy: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).

And so we must deal with this chapter in Genesis in order to discern its profit and benefit to us. In the few years that I have preached the Bible I have learned that the inadequacy is not the text of Scripture we preach, but in the teacher who presents it.

Understanding Genealogies

The fifth chapter of Genesis is only one of many genealogies contained in Scripture. Learning from this chapter will encourage us and instruct us as we approach the other numerous genealogies of the Bible. And, conversely, the other genealogies give us considerable insight as we approach this particular account. Let us, then, give our attention to the purpose of genealogies in general, before we turn our attention to our text.

The genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11 are not at all unique in the ancient times. The Egyptians had king lists and so did the Sumerians. The Hittites had royal offering lists, the historical and chronological value of which is beyond doubt.70 These ancient Near Eastern genealogies are very instructive in determining the correct interpretation of the biblical records.

For one thing, we learn that genealogies were not intended to be used as a chronology.71 At first glance, the one who reads Genesis chapter 5 would think that one only need add up the numbers contained here in order to establish the age of civilization upon the earth. Ussher, for example, arrived at the date of 4004 B.C. for the events of Genesis chapter 1.

The naming of individuals did not necessarily imply that a continuous sequence was to be assumed. Often names were omitted and genealogical lists were selective.72

“The expression ‘A begat B’ does not always imply direct parentage.”73 Matthew 1:8 states that ‘Joram begat Uzziah,’ but from the Old Testament (II Kings 8:25; 11:2, 14:1,21) we learn that Joram was the father of Ahaziah, who fathered Joash, father of Amaziah father of Uzziah. Thus ‘begat’ can mean ‘begat the line culminating in.’74 As Kitchen states, “Terms like ‘son’ and ‘father’ can mean not only ‘(grand)son’ and ‘(grand)father,’ but also ‘descendant’ and ‘ancestor’ respectively.”75

The arrangement of the genealogies into a neat and clean pattern also suggests something other than a chronological indicator. Matthew’s genealogy of Christ, for example (Matthew 1:1-17) is arranged into three successions of 14 generations each. And this genealogy is known to be selective.

The numbers in the genealogies of the Ancient Near East were usually of secondary importance.76 The primary purpose was to establish one’s family identity, one’s roots. Nowhere in Genesis 5, the Bible, or elsewhere were the numbers ever totaled to establish any kind of chronology. Sometimes the numbers of one account differ from those of another.77 While there are many explanations for this, one is that these numbers were given only as an approximation. Exact figures did not serve the purpose of the genealogy. While we dare not say that the numbers are not literal, we simply point out the way such numbers were used in the Ancient Near East.78

Let us then carefully consider the words of the great scholar, Dr. B. B. Warfield, when he writes:

These genealogies must be esteemed trustworthy for the purposes for which they are recorded; but they cannot safely be pressed into use for other purposes for which they were not intended, and for which they are not adapted. In particular, it is clear that the genealogical purposes for which the genealogies were given, did not require a complete record of all the generations through which the descent of the persons to whom they are assigned runs; but only an adequate indication of the particular line through which the descent in question comes. Accordingly it is found on examination that the genealogies of Scripture are freely compressed for all sorts of purposes; and that it can seldom be confidently affirmed that they contain a complete record of the whole series of generations, while it is often obvious that a very large number are omitted. There is no reason inherent in the nature of the scriptural genealogies why a genealogy of ten recorded links, as each of those in Genesis v. and xi. is, may not represent an actual descent of a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand links. The point established by the table is not that these are all the links which intervened between the beginning and the closing names, but that this is the line of descent through which one traces back to or down to the other.79

The Meaning of Genesis 5

If we cannot learn the age of the earth from the genealogy of Genesis chapter 5, what are we to gain from its study? The more I have considered this passage the clearer it becomes that it must be interpreted in the light of its context. A significant part of that context is the genealogy of Cain in chapter 4. The meaning and application of the genealogy of chapter 5, then, is gained by a comparison and contrast of chapter 4.

Normally, we are told that chapter 4 gives us the genealogy of Cain while in chapter 5 Moses describes the godly line of Seth. In one sense this is true. Surely chapter 4 depicts an ungodly descent while chapter 5 records the history of the line through whom the Savior will come.

Technically, however, chapter 5 is not the account of the lineage of Seth, but of Adam.

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created. When Adam had lived an hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth (Genesis 5:1-3).

I have puzzled over the seeming repetition of these introductory verses. Why would Moses tell us what we already know? Notice that these verses are not attached to the genealogy of chapter 4, but of that in chapter 5. Cain’s genealogy comes to a dead end. It begins with ungodly Cain, ends with wicked Lamech, and is ‘washed out’ by the flood.

Moses begins chapter 5 with the terminology of chapters 1 and 2 (e.g., ‘created,’ ‘in the likeness of God,’ ‘male and female,’ ‘blessed them’) in order to indicate to the reader that God’s purposes and program for man begun in the first chapters are to be carried out through Adam’s seed, but not through the line of Cain; rather through Seth. The whole of chapter 5 is a description of the ever-narrowing line through which Messiah will come.

The contrast spiritually between the two lines is obvious. It can easily be illustrated by the two ‘Lamechs’ of chapters 4 and 5. Lamech (the son of Methushael, 4:18) of Cain’s lineage was the initiator of polygamy (4:19). Worse than this he was a murderer who boasted of his crime (4:23) and made light of God’s words to Cain (4:24).

The Lamech of chapter 5 (the son of Methuselah and the father of Noah) was a godly man. The naming of his son revealed his understanding of the fall of man and the curse of God upon the ground (cf. 5:29). It also indicated his faith that God would deliver man from the curse through the seed of Eve. I believe Lamech understood that this deliverance would specifically come through the son God had given him.

In the account of Cain’s descendants no numbers were employed, while the line of Seth has a definite numerical pattern. Figures in chapter 5 typically supplied: (1) the age of the individual at the birth of the son named; (2) the years lived after the birth of the son;80 and (3) the age of the man at his death. Essentially the life of the person falls into two parts, B.C., and A.D.: Before the child and after the delivery of the child. This division is not without significance.

The length of the lives of the men in chapter 5 is unusually long, but every effort to explain this fact in some way other than taking the numbers literally has proven futile. Conditions were undoubtedly different prior to the flood.

Moses surely intended the length of the lives of these men to impress us. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why they were so prominently included. The long length of life would facilitate the population of the earth. My wife and I have had six children in our 17 years of marriage. Imagine what could be done in 900 years?

Furthermore Moses would reveal by this that man was originally intended to live many years, even after the fall. Surely the promise of a millennial kingdom in which men would live to a ripe old age (cf. Isaiah 65:20) is buttressed by this chapter. Length of life was nothing new, but simply something regained.

The main contrast between the lines of Cain and Seth is that of the emphasis of each. Cain’s line is credited with what might be called ‘worldly progress’ and achievements. Cain built the first city (4:17). From his descendants came the technological and cultural contributions. Metal workers, ranchers, and musicians were of this line.

Now what is it that is emphasized about the line of Seth? No mention is made of any great contributions or achievements. Two things marked out the men of chapter 5. First of all, they were men of faith (cf. Enoch, 5:18, 21-24; Lamech, 5:28-31). These men looked back and grasped the fact that sin was the root of their troubles and travail. They looked forward to a redemption that God was to provide through their offspring.

That brings us to the second contribution of these men of chapter 5—they produced godly seed through whom the purposes and program of God would continue. Now we are not told that every child of theirs was godly. But we do know that these were godly men and that through them and their children a line was continued which culminated in Noah. While the rest of mankind would be destroyed in the flood, through Noah, the human race (and more than this, the seed of Eve) would be preserved. The hope of men rested in the preservation of a godly seed.

What a lesson this would be to the Israelites. When they reached the land of Canaan they would encounter a people vastly different from the Egyptians. While the Egyptians despised the Israelites and would not consider intermarriage, the Canaanites would invite it (cf. Genesis 46:34; Deuteronomy 7:1ff; Numbers 25:1ff). To intermarry with the Canaanites would be to turn from the God of Israel. To intermix with the Canaanites would mean to pollute the godly line through which Messiah was to come.

God had promised to bless the faith and obedience of the Israelites. He would give them rain, crops and cattle (Deuteronomy 28). It could well be that the nation would put their trust, not in the living God, but in the technology of the Canaanites. Horses and chariots may have been the latest technological advance in warfare, but God had forbidden Israel to accumulate such arms. They must trust in Him (cf. Exodus 15:4; Deuteronomy 17:14ff; Joshua 11:6). Alliances with pagan nations may have been the way of the world, but it was not God’s way (II Kings 18,19).

We may be surprised that such an emphasis upon death occurs in the genealogy of chapter 5, while it is not mentioned in the fourth chapter. Would it not have been more fitting to have emphasized death in conjunction with the ungodly line of Cain?

The first thing we must recognize is the significance of death in the context of the book of Genesis. God had told Adam that they would surely die in the day they ate of the forbidden fruit (2:17). Satan boldly denied this and assured Eve that this was not so (3:4). Chapter 5 is a grim reminder that the wages of sin is death and that God keeps His Word, in judgment and in salvation.

But why not stress the relationship between sinfulness and death? Why not emphasize death in chapter 4? Let me suggest an explanation. In chapter 4 it would seem that death was not a popular subject. I believe that Cain found comfort in the fact that he had fathered a son in whose name he also founded a city. In addition, his offspring were responsible for great cultural and technological contributions.81 These ‘monuments’ to Cain may have given him some kind of comfort.

The sad reality was vastly different, however. As the writer in Proverbs has said, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, but the name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7).

The greatest tragedy was not that the men of chapter 4 died, for so did those of chapter 5. The tragedy is that the offspring of Cain did not survive the judgment of God, but that Noah, the seed of Seth, did. All men will die, but some will be raised to everlasting torment while the people of faith will spend eternity in the presence of God (cf. John 5:28,29; Revelation 20). Outward appearances would indicate that the children of this world ‘have it made,’ but the ultimate reality is vastly different.

Death did come to the godly seed of Seth. This is repeated eight times in chapter 5. But Enoch is a type of all those who truly walk with God. Death will not swallow them up. They will be ushered into the eternal presence of God, in whose fellowship they will dwell forever. Death can be looked squarely in the face by the true believer, for its sting has been removed by the work of God in the death of Christ Jesus, the ‘seed of the woman’ (Genesis 3:15).


I cannot leave these verses without pointing out their relevance to men today. The most important factor in all the world, according to Moses, which determines men’s destiny is not the contributions which he makes to culture or civilization (important as this may be). Whether or not you have made a reputation for yourself is of little eternal consequence. The critical element for every man named in these chapters was this: was His name to be found in God’s book?

Moses began chapter 5 with these words: “This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1).

I am reminded of these words of the last book of the Bible,

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of Life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:12-15).

What determined ancient men’s destiny was whether or not his name was in the book of the generations of Cain or of Seth. And what determined the names of those who are listed in chapter 5 was their recognition of personal sin and their faith in God to provide the salvation He promised.

And so it is today, my friend. The ultimate question is this, in whose genealogy are you to be found? Are you still in Adam or are you in Christ (cf. Romans 5)? If you acknowledge that you are a sinner, deserving of God’s eternal punishment and you are trusting in the righteousness of Christ and His death on your behalf, you are in Christ. Your name is in the book of life. If you have not done this, you are in Adam. While your works may have impressed men, they will not meet the standard of God for eternal life. In which book is your name to be found?

Secondly, I am reminded in this chapter that the measure of a man, in God’s eyes, is to be evidenced in his children. This is why elders are to be evaluated in part, by their effectiveness as parents (cf. I Timothy 3; Titus 1).

How this should change our priorities and values. Cain built for his son, but Seth built into his son. Cain sacrificed his sons to success. Seth found success in his sons. How often we need to be reminded of the words of the Psalmist.

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, The fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; They shall not be ashamed, When they speak with their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127).

The Psalmist is reminding the workaholics that striving for success often sacrifices that which is of the highest value. And he tells us that children, which are God’s great gift to men, are not given in striving but in sleep, not in rising early and retiring late, but in resting in the faithfulness of God.

What a commentary Genesis 5 is on the difficult words of Paul in the book of I Timothy:

Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. But she shall be saved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (I Timothy 2:11-15, verse 15 my translation82).

The women who abide by Paul’s teaching may protest, “But how can I find fulfillment under such prohibitions, and how can I make any significant contribution to the church?” Paul says, in effect, “The most important work of all is for a godly woman to raise godly children.”

And lest we apply this only to women, let me suggest that it is equally true for the men as well, even if this is not the primary intent of Paul here. Fathers, are you sacrificing your children for success in the business world, or for success in Christian ministry? There is no more important calling than that of raising godly children. If we fail here, we have failed of our highest calling.

There are those, I know, who do not, or who cannot, have children. Let me assure you that we are not in the same shoes as the Israelites of old. The godly line was preserved, and the Messiah has come through the seed of women. But it is vital to the purpose of God that a righteous remnant continue through the years to carry on the work of God for man and through man. We must, therefore, continue to beget spiritual children and to nurture them in the truths of God’s Word. Let us all take this task seriously.

68 Ray Stedman, The Beginnings (Waco: Word Books, 1978), p. 47.

69 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 248.

70 K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966 ), pp. 35-36.

71 “0n a more careful scrutiny of the data on which these calculations rest, however, they are found not to supply a satisfactory basis for the constitution of a definite chronological scheme. These data consist largely, and at the crucial points solely, of genealogical tables; and nothing can be clearer than that it is precarious in the highest degree to draw chronological inferences from genealogical tables.” “The Antiquity and Unity of the Human Race,” B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968, p. 240.

72 “Such a mixture of continuous and selective genealogy is in no way abnormal. Besides the obvious example of Matthew 1:1-17, the Abydos King List in Egypt silently omits three entire groups of kings (Ninth to early Eleventh, Thirteenth to Seventeenth Dynasties and the Amarna pharaohs) at three separate points in an otherwise continuous series; other sources enable us to know this.” Kitchen, p. 38.

73 Ibid.

74 Ibid., pp. 38,39.

75 Ibid., p. 39.

76 Cf. J. N. Oswalt, “Chronology of the Old Testament,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1979), I, p. 674.

77 In Genesis 5 there are considerable variations between the Massoretic Text (the Hebrew text of the Old Testament), the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and the Samantan Pentateuch. To compare these figures one should consult the chart in ISBE, I, p. 676, contained in the article on the chronology of the Old Testament.

78 ‘‘The same observation applies to a second class of data: random chronological statements, e.g., the statement in Gen. 15:13 concerning the duration of the Egyptian sojourn, or that in I K. 6:1 covering the time elapsed between the Exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple. While there is no warrant for disregarding such statements, neither is it necessary to assume that they are precise chronological computations. In the premonarchial society especially, long term chronological records are highly unlikely because of their lack of importance. Rather, approximations arrived at in various ways can be expected, and the use of round numbers, particularly, would suggest some degree of approximation. It is the significance of these numbers for the biblical writers that the interpreter must understand before he attempts to build an absolute chronology upon them.” ISBE, I, p. 674.

79 Warfield, pp. 240-241.

80 This is not to say that other sons and daughters were not born to the men of chapter 5. They may or may not have had faith in God, and they may or may not have been born prior to the son specified as being born at a certain age in the life of his father.

81 I do not wish to be understood to say, as some seem to,* that the godly should forsake all efforts to improve the quality of life by enriching it with moral, social, cultural and technological contributions. These contributions I understand as a part of God’s command to man to ‘subdue the earth’ (Genesis 1:28, etc.). The point here is that ancient man’s comfort and consolation should not abide in these achievements, but in the promise of God’s salvation, and God’s faithfulness to accomplish it. *Cf. W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis, A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1946), p. 63.

82 Verse 15 is my translation, which best reflects the Greek. The word ‘women’ supplied by the NASV here is literally ‘she’ (singular). The ‘they’ of the NASV is plural and thus should refer to its antecedent ‘children,’ which is also plural.
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7. The Sons of God and the Daughters of Men (Genesis 6:1-8)


Attempts to produce a master race did not begin with Adolf Hitler, nor have they ended with him. Our generation seems to have a fixation on super human. Superman, the Bionic Man, the Bionic Woman, Hulk, and many other television characters contribute to the same theme. And this super-race is not to be understood as dominating only the realm of fiction. It is almost frightening to realize that genetic scientists are seriously working to create the master humans, while abortions can be employed to systematically eliminate the undesirables. I read an article in the paper the other day which gave an account of one organization that makes available to certain women the sperm of contributing Nobel Prize winners.

It is much more difficult to determine the ultimate outcome of these attempts than it is to find the origin of the movement. It’s inception is recorded in the sixth chapter of the book of Genesis. I must say as we begin to study these verses that there is more disagreement here per square inch than almost anywhere in the Bible. By-and-large it is the conservative scholars who have the most difficulty with this passage. That is because those who don’t take the Bible either literally or seriously are quick to call the account a myth. Conservative scholars must explain the event for what Moses claimed it to be, an historical event. While great differences arise in the interpretation of this passage, the issue is not one that is fundamental—one that will affect the critica1 issues which underlie one’s eternal salvation. Those with whom I most heartily disagree here are usually my brothers in Christ.

Who are the ‘Sons of God’?

The interpretation of verses 1-8 hinges upon the definition of three key terms, ‘the sons of God’ (verses 2,4), ‘the daughters of men’ (verses 2,4), and the ‘Nephilim’ (verse 4). There are three major interpretations of these terms which I will attempt to describe, beginning with that which, in my mind is the least likely, and ending with the one that is most satisfactory.

View 1: The Merging of the Ungodly Cainite with the Godly Sethites

The ‘sons of God’ are generally said by those who hold this view to be the godly men of the Sethite line. The ‘daughters of men’ are thought to be the daughters of the ungodly Cainite. The Nephilim are the ungodly and violent men who are the product of this unholy union.

The major support for this interpretation is the context of chapters 4 and 5. Chapter four describes the ungodly generation of Cain, while in chapter five we see the godly Sethite line. In Israel, separation was a vital part of the religious responsibility of those who truly worshipped God. What took place in chapter six was the breakdown in the separation which threatened the godly seed through whom Messiah was to be born. This breakdown was the cause of the flood which would follow. It destroyed the ungodly world and preserved righteous Noah and his family, through whom the promise of Genesis 3:15 would be fulfilled.

While this interpretation has the commendable feature of explaining the passage without creating any doctrinal or theological problems, what it offers in terms of orthodoxy, it does at the expense of accepted exegetical practices.

First and foremost this interpretation does not provide definitions that arise from within the passage or which even adapt well to the text. Nowhere are the Sethites called the ‘the sons of God.’

The contrast between the godly line of Seth and the ungodly line of Cain may well be overemphasized. I am not at all certain that the line of Seth, as a whole, was godly. While all of the Cainite line appears to be godless, only a handful of the Sethites are said to be godly. The point which Moses makes in chapter 5 is that God has preserved a righteous remnant through whom His promises to Adam and Eve will be accomplished. One has the distinct impression that few were godly in these days (cf. 6:5-7, 12). It seems that only Noah and his family could be called righteous at the time of the flood. Would God have failed to deliver any who were righteous?

Also, the ‘daughters of men’ can hardly be restricted to only the daughters of the Cainites. In verse 1 Moses wrote, “Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them” (Genesis 6:1).

It is difficult to conclude that the ‘men’ here are not men in general or mankind. It would follow that the reference to their ‘daughters’ would be equally general. To conclude that the ‘daughters of men’ in verse two is some different, more restrictive group is to ignore the context of the passage.

For these reasons and others,83 I must conclude that this view is exegetically unacceptable. While it meets the test of orthodoxy it fails to submit to the laws of interpretation.

View 2: The Despot Interpretation

Recognizing the deficiencies of the first view, some scholars have sought to define the expression ‘the sons of God’ by comparing it with the languages of the Ancient Near East. It is interesting to learn that some rulers were identified as the son of a particular god. In Egypt, for example, the king was called the son of Re.84

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is used for men in positions of authority:

Then his master shall bring him unto the judges who acted in God’s name (Exodus 21:6, following the marginal reading of the NASV).

God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers (literally, the gods, Psalm 82:1, cf. also 82:6).

This interpretation, like the fallen angel view, has its roots in antiquity.85 According to this approach the ‘sons of God’ are nobles, aristocrats, and kings.

These ambitious despots lusted after power and wealth and desired to become ‘men of a name’ that is, somebodies (cf. 11:4)! Their sin was ‘not intermarriage between two groups—whether two worlds, (angels and man), two religious communities (Sethite and Cainite), or two social classes (royal and common)—but that the sin was polygamy.’ It was the same type of sin that the Cainite Lamech practiced, the sin of polygamy, particularly as it came to expression in the harem, the characteristic institution of the ancient oriental despot’s court. In this transgression the ‘sons of God’ frequently violated the sacred trust of their office as guardians of the general ordinances of God for human conduct.86

In the context of Genesis 4 and 5 we do find some evidence which could be interpreted as supportive of the despot view. Cain did establish a city, named after his son Enoch (verse 4:17). Dynasties would be more easily established in an urban setting. So, also, we know that Lamech did have two wives (verse 4:19). Although this is far from a harem, it could be viewed as a step in that direction. Also the view defines ‘the daughters of men’ as womankind, and not just the daughters of the Cainite line.

In spite of these factors, this interpretation would probably never have been considered had it not been for the ‘problems’ which the fallen angel view is said to create. While pagan kings were referred to as sons of a foreign deity, no Israelite king was so designated. True, nobles and those in authority were occasionally called ‘gods,’ but not the ‘sons of God.’ This definition chooses to ignore the precise definition given by the Scriptures themselves.

Further, the whole idea of power hungry men, seeking to establish a dynasty by the acquisition of a harem seems forced on the passage. Who would ever have found this idea in the text itself, unless it were imposed upon it? Also, the definition of the Nephilim as being merely violent and tyrannical men seems inadequate. Why should these men be sorted out for special consideration if they were merely like all the other men of that day (cf. 6:11,12)? While the despot view does less violence to the text than does the Cainite/Sethite view, it seems to me to be inadequate.

View 3: The Fallen Angel Interpretation

According to this view, the ‘sons of God’ of verses 2 and 4 are fallen angels, which have taken the form of masculine human-like creatures. These angels married women of the human race (either Cainites or Sethites) and the resulting offspring were the Nephilim. The Nephilim were giants with physical superiority and therefore established themselves as men of renown for their physical prowess and military might. This race of half human creatures was wiped out by the flood, along with mankind in general, who were sinners in their own right (verse 6:11,12).

My basic presupposition in approaching our text is that we should let the Bible define its own terms. If biblical definitions are not to be found then we must look at the language and culture of contemporary peoples. But the Bible does define the term ‘the sons of God’ for us.

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, Satan also came among them (Job 1:6).

Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came among them to present himself before the Lord (Job 2:1).

When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:7, cf. Psalm 89:6; Daniel 3:25).

Scholars who reject this view readily acknowledge the fact that the precise term is clearly defined in Scripture.87 The reason for rejecting the fallen angel interpretation is that such a view is said to be in violation of both reason and Scripture.

The primary passage which is said to be problematical is that found in Matthew’s gospel, where our Lord said, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30).

We are told that here our Lord said that angels are sexless, but is this really true? Jesus compared men in heaven to angels in heaven. Neither men nor angels are said to be sexless in heaven but we are told that in heaven there will be no marriage. There are no female angels with whom angels can generate offspring. Angels were never told to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as was man.

When we find angels described in the book of Genesis, it is clear that they can assume a human-like form, and that their sex is masculine. The writer to the Hebrews mentions that angels can be entertained without man’s knowing it (Hebrews 13:2). Surely angels must be convincingly like men. The homosexual men of Sodom were very capable of judging sexuality. They were attracted by the ‘male’ angels who came to destroy the city (cf. Genesis 19:1ff, especially verse 5).

In the New Testament, two passages seem to refer to this incident in Genesis 6, and to support the angel view:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; (II Peter 2:4).

And angels who did not keep their own domain, but abandoned their proper abode, He has kept in eternal bonds under darkness for the judgment of the great day (Jude 6).

These verses would indicate that some of the angels who fell with Satan were not content with their ‘proper abode’ and therefore began to live among men (and women) as men. God’s judgment upon them was to place them in bonds88 so that they can no longer promote Satan’s purposes on earth as do the unbound fallen angels who continue to do his bidding.

The result of the union between fallen angels and women is rather clearly implied to be the Nephilim. While word studies have produced numerous suggestions for the meaning of this term, the biblical definition of this word comes from its only other instance in Scripture, Numbers 13:33:

There also we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim); and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.

I understand the Nephilim in Genesis 6 to be a race of super-humans who are the product of this angelic invasion of the earth, while the Nephilim of Numbers 13:33 are a strictly human race of giants, with great military prowess.89

This view not only conforms to the biblical use of the expression ‘sons of God,’ it also best fits the context of the passage. The effects of the fall were seen in the ungodly offspring of Cain (chapter 4). While Cain and his descendants were ‘in Satan’s pocket,’ Satan knew from God’s words in Genesis 3:15 that through the seed of the woman God was going to bring forth a Messiah who would destroy him. We do not know that the entire line of Seth was God-fearing. In fact we would assume otherwise. Noah and his immediate family alone seem to be righteous at the time of the flood.

Genesis 6 describes a desperate attempt on the part of Satan to attack the godly remnant that is named in chapter 5. So long as a righteous seed is preserved, God’s promise of salvation hangs over the head of Satan, threatening of his impending doom.

The daughters of men were not raped or seduced as such. They simply chose their husbands on the same basis that the angels selected them—physical appeal. Now if you were an eligible woman in those days, who would you choose? Would you select a handsome, muscle-bulging specimen of a man, who had a reputation for his strength and accomplishments, or what seemed to be in comparison a ninety-pound weakling?

Women looked for the hope of being the mother of the Savior. Who would be the most likely father of such a child? Would it not be a ‘mighty man of renown,’ who would also be able to boast of immortality? Some of the godly Sethites did live to be nearly 1000 years old, but the Nephilim did not die, if they were angels. And so the new race began.

Does God Change His Mind?

While verses 1-4 highlight the angelic invasion in the beginning of a new super-race, verses 5-7 serve notice that mankind in general was deserving of God’s destructive intervention into history—the flood. But it is here that we come upon a very serious problem, for it would almost appear that God changed His mind, as though the creation of man was a colossal error on His part. Let us, then, address the question, “Does God change His mind?” Several factors must be considered.

First, God is immutable, unchanging in His person, His perfections, His purposes, and His promises.

God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? (Numbers 23:19).

And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind, for He is not a man that He should change His mind (I Samuel 15:29, cf. also Psalm 33:11; 102:26-28; Hebrews 1:11-12; Malachi 3:6; Romans 11:29; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17).

Second, there are passages in which God “appears” to change His mind.

And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them, and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation. So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (Exodus 32:9-10,14).

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God repented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it (Jonah 3:10).

The Lord changed His mind about this. ‘It shall not be,’ said the Lord. The Lord changed His mind about this. ‘This too shall not be,’ said the Lord God (Amos 7:3,6).

Third, in those cases where God “appears” to change His mind, one or more of these considerations may apply:

a. The expression, “God repented” is an anthropomorphism, that is, a description of God which likens God’s actions to man’s. How else can man understand then by thinking of God in human terms and comparisons? God’s ‘change of mind’ may only be the way it looks from man’s perspective. In both Genesis 22 (cf. verses 2, 11-12) and Exodus 32, that which God proposed was a test. In both cases, His eternal purpose did not change.

b. In cases where either judgment or blessing are promised, there may be an implied or stated condition. The message preached by Jonah to the Ninevites was one such instance:

Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.’ Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes. And he issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger so that we shall not perish?’ (Jonah 3:4-9).

What the Ninevites hoped for Jonah knew for a fact. They cried for mercy and forgiveness in case God might hear and forgive. When the Ninevites repented and God relented, Jonah was hopping mad:

But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.’ (Jonah 4:1,2).

Jonah knew God to be loving and forgiving. The message he preached implied one exception. If Nineveh repented, God would forgive them. This is what Jeremiah had written, saying,

At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it. Or at another moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it; if it does evil in My sight by not obeying My voice, then I will think better of the good with which I had promised to bless it (Jeremiah 18:7-10).

c. While God’s decree cannot be altered, we must grant that God is free to act as He chooses. While God’s program may change His purposes do not, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

God promised to bring His people into the land of Canaan. Due to their unbelief the first generation did not possess the land, but the second generation did. When Jesus came He offered Himself to Israel as the Messiah. Her rejection has made possible the offer of the gospel to the Gentiles. Nevertheless, when God’s purposes for the Gentiles have been accomplished, God will once again pour out His grace and salvation upon the Jews. God’s program changes, but not His purposes (cf. Romans 9-11).

d. While God’s will (His decree) cannot and does not change, He is free to change His emotions. Genesis 6:6-7 describes the response of God to human sin. Grief is love’s response to sin. God is no stoic; He is a person Who rejoices in men’s salvation and obedience, and Who grieves at unbelief and disobedience. While the purpose of God for mankind never changed, His attitude did. Surely a Holy God must feel differently about sin than about obedience. That is the point of verses 6 and 7. God is grieved about man’s sin and its consequences. But God will accomplish His purposes regardless. While such a state was ordained from eternity past, God could never rejoice in it, but only regret man’s wickedness and willfulness.

A similar illustration is the emotional response of our Lord in the garden of Gethsemane (cf. Matthew 26:36ff). The Lord Jesus had in eternity past, purposed to go to the cross to purchase man’s salvation. Yet when the moment for His agony drew near He dreaded it. His purpose did not change, but His emotions did.

The Meaning of this
Passage for Ancient Israel

For the Israelites of old this passage would teach several valuable lessons. First, it provided them with an adequate explanation for the flood. We can see that this super-race had to be eliminated. The flood was not only God’s way of judging sinful men, but of fulfilling His promise to bring salvation through the seed of the woman. Had the intermingling of angels and men gone unchecked, the godly remnant would have ceased to exist (humanly speaking). Second, this passage would illustrate the word of God to the serpent, Adam and Eve: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed;” (Genesis 3:15a).

Israel dared not forget that there was an intense struggle going on, not just between the Cainites and the Sethites, but between Satan and the seed of the woman. While we are accustomed to such emphasis in the New Testament, the Old has few direct references to Satan or his demonic assistants (cf. Genesis 3; Deuteronomy 32:17; I Chronicles 21:1; Job 1,2; Psalm 106:37; Daniel 10:13; Zechariah 3:1,2). This passage would be a vivid reminder of the accuracy of God’s word.

Third, it underscored the importance of maintaining their racial and spiritual purity. God’s believing remnant must be preserved. When men failed to perceive the importance of this, God had to judge them severely. As the nation entered the land of Canaan, few lessons could be more vital than that of the need for separation.

The Meaning of
Genesis 6 for Christians Today

While the New Testament has much more to say about the activities of Satan and his demons, few of us seem to take our spiritual warfare seriously. We really believe that the church can operate on human strength and wisdom alone, or with a little help from God. We often attempt to live the spiritual life in the power of the flesh. We urge people to rededicate their lives and redouble their efforts, but we fail to remind them that our only strength is that which God supplies.

The battle today between the sons of Satan and the sons of God (in the New Testament sense—John 1:12; Romans 8:14,19) is even more intense than it was in the days of old. Satan’s doom is sealed, and his days are numbered (cf. Matthew 8:29). Let us, then, put on the spiritual armor by which God equips us for the spiritual warfare of which we are a part (Ephesians 6:10-20).

Second, let us learn that Satan attacks us through similar instruments today. I am not aware of any instances in our times when fallen angelic beings have invaded the earth in human form to further Satan’s cause. Nevertheless Satan still works through men.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their deeds (II Corinthians 11:13-15).

Just as Satan sought to corrupt men by disclosing himself (or rather, his angels) in the form of superior human beings, so he works through ‘angels of light’ today. We are inclined to suppose that Satan works most often and most effectively through the reprobate. We almost expect to find Satan in the pathetic demonic or in the hopeless derelict. It is easy to attribute such tragedy to Satan. But Satan’s best work and, in my estimation, his most frequent work is through those seemingly moral, devout, and pious talking men who stand behind the pulpit or sit on the governing board and talk about salvation in terms of society rather than souls, and by means of works rather than faith. Satan continues to advance his cause through men who are not what they appear to be.

Finally, notice that Satan does his best work in the very areas where men and women place their hope of salvation. When the angel-men proposed to the daughters of men they appeared to be the most promising fathers. If these creatures were immortal, then would their offspring not be so also? Was this the way God was going to overrule the fall and the curse? So it must have seemed to these women.

That is precisely what Satan does today. Oh, he is not above promoting himself through atheism or other ‘ism’s,’ but he finds great success in the arena of religion. He wears his most pious expression and uses religious terminology. He does not seek to abolish religion only to abort it by cutting out its essential element, faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ as the substitute for sinful men. He will readily join any religious cause so long as this ingredient is omitted, or distorted, or lost in a maze of legalism or libertinism. Watch out, my friend, for Satan in the realm of religion. What better way to sidetrack souls and to blind the minds of men (II Corinthians 4:4)?

Where is your hope for immortality? Is it in your offspring? That way did not work for Cain. Is it in your work? Do you wish to build an empire or to erect a monument to your name? It will not last. All of these things perished in the flood of God’s judgment. Only faith in the God of the Bible and, specifically, faith in the Son He has sent will give you immortality and liberate you from the curse. The only way to become a son of God is through the Son of God.

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’ (John 14:6).

83 A more serious problem for this prevalent view is posed by verse 4. From all appearances, the giants (nephilim) and mighty men (gibborim) are the offspring of the marriages of the ‘sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men.’ As Kline says:

“It is not at all clear why the offspring of religiously mixed marriages should be Nephilim-Gibborim, however these be understood within the range of feasible interpretation . . . But his (the biblical author’s) reference to the conjugal act and to childbearing finds justification only if he is describing the origin of the Nephilim-Gibborim. Unless the difficulty which follows from this conclusion can be overcome, the religiously mixed marriage interpretation of the passage ought to be definitely abandoned.”

To summarize the problem: “Why does one find the kind of offspring mentioned in verse 4 if these are just religiously mixed marriages?” Manfred E. Kober, The Sons of God of Genesis 6: Demons, Degenerates, or Despots?, p. 15. Kober quotes here Meredith G. Kline, “Divine Kingship and Genesis 6:1-4,” Westminster Theological Journal, XXIV, Nov. 1961-May 1962, p. 190.

84 “In Egypt the king was called the son of Re (the sun god). The Sumero-Akkadian king was considered the offspring of the goddess and one of the gods, and this identification with the deity goes back to the earliest times according to Engell. In one inscription he is referred to as ‘the king, the son of his god.’ The Hittite king was called ‘son of the weather-god,’ and the title of his mother was Tawannannas (mother-of-the-god). In the northwest Semitic area the king was directly called the son of the god and the god was called the father of the king. The Ras Shamra (Ugaritic) Krt text refers to the god as the king’s father and to king Krt as Krt bn il, the son of el or the son of god. Thus, on the basis of Semitic usage, the term be ne ha elohim, the ‘sons of god’ or the ‘sons of gods,’ very likely refers to dynastic rulers in Genesis 6.” “An Exegetical Study of Genesis 6:1-4,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, XIII, winter 1970, pp. 47-48, as quoted by Kober, p. 19.

85 “In an excellent article presenting this view, Kline writes that this view anciently rose among the Jews that the ‘sons of God’ of Genesis 6 were men of the aristocracy, princes, and nobles, in contrast to the socially inferior ‘daughters of men.’ This interpretation came to expression, for example, in the Aramaic Targums (the Targums of Onkelos rendered the term as ‘sons of nobles’) and in the Greek translation of Symmachus (which reads ‘the sons of the kings or lords’) and it has been followed by many Jewish authorities down to the present.” Kober, pp. 16-17, referring to Kline, p. 194.

86 Kober, p. 16, quoting Birney, p. 49 and Kline, p. 196.

87 For, example, W. H. Griffith Thomas, who holds the Cainite/Sethite view, says:

“Verse 2 speaks of the union of the two lines by inter-marriage. Some writers regard the phrase ‘sons of God’ as referring to the angels, and it is urged that in other passages--e.g. Job i. 6; Ps. xxix. 1; Dan. iii. 25--and, indeed, always elsewhere in Scripture, the phrase invariably means angels. Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), p. 65.

88 Is this bondage not that which the demons feared in Mark 5:10 and Luke 8:31?

89 Does the fact that the Nephilim are mentioned after the flood mean that this practice continued after the flood? Some have thought so, emphasizing the phrase ‘and also afterward’ (Genesis 6:4). If so, we would have to say that this practice did not threaten the promise of God at this time. It would intensify the importance of not intermarrying with any of the Canaanites, among whom the Nephilim were to be found.

Personally, I do not think the super-race ever appeared after the flood. The expression Nephilim, as I view it, is not synonymous with this, super race, but descriptive of it. It simply refers to the fact of great physical stature, just as the other expressions (‘mighty men,’ ‘men of renown’) refer to their reputation and military prowess. I do not think that we must find super-human creatures in Numbers 13:33, but only giants. The word Nephilim is thus defined in Numbers by Moses as referring to great physical stature. No technical name is given to the super-race, only descriptions which could be used elsewhere for other non-angelic creatures.
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8. The Flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22)


The world knows little about the Bible, but few are unaware of Noah’s ark. There are jokes about it, pictures of it, movies about the search for the ark, even ceramic representations of it. A knowledge of the flood is almost universal, even apart from the biblical account of the book of Genesis.

“But it seems as if we must conclude that the Genesis flood at least engulfed all of mankind, if not the whole earth, because of certain indications in the Genesis narrative and because on all continents and among almost all peoples of the earth flood accounts have been found. These accounts all refer to a destructive flood occurring early in the respective tribal histories. In each case one or a few individuals were saved and were charged with repopulating the earth. To date, anthropologists have collected between 250 and 300 such flood stories.90

This familiarity with the story is the greatest obstacle to our benefiting from a study of it in Genesis. We come to the text with our minds made up, thinking that there is little or nothing new about it that should change our thinking or behavior.

For example, we would suppose that the theme of the story is that of judgment and destruction and, to a degree, this is true. Hollywood would make much of this event. We would see all kinds of sinful acts graphically portrayed on the screen. When the plot could no longer sustain lust producing scenes, the focus would turn to destruction and violence. Families would be severed by raging torrents. Mothers would be torn apart from their babies. Buildings would shatter and collapse in the deluge.

While this may seem to be the thrust of the account, not one descriptive word can be found of the actual process which resulted in agony, suffering and death. Not one scene is played before our eyes of such devastation. Judgment is certainly a theme in this event, but, thank God, there is a much greater theme, that of the saving grace of God. While we dare not ignore the warnings of this text, let us not lose sight of its encouragement either.

While some have fixed their attention on the sin and devastation of the flood, others have concentrated on the mechanics of the deluge as over against its meaning. While I am certain that there is much of interest here to the scientific mind, let me simply caution you that much of that which is proposed in the name of science is still theory and speculation. I do not in any way wish to discredit or discourage such efforts. I only desire to say that we dare not build our lives on it, and to point out that this kind of approach does not focus on the principle purpose of the account of the Genesis flood.

A detailed analysis of the event is not the purpose of this lesson, but rather a broad view of the meaning and message of the flood for men of all ages. With this in mind, let us turn our attention to this event.


Broadly speaking this section deals with the necessary preparations for the flood. The reasons for the flood are given in verses 9-12. Revelation concerning the flood is given to Noah in verses 13-21. The order to enter the ark is given in Genesis 7:1-4. Genesis 6:22 and 7:5 records the obedience of Noah to the divine instructions.

Verses 9-12 of chapter 6 and the concluding verses of chapter 8 are the most crucial of this passage because they underscore the reasons for the flood and God’s underlying purpose for history. For this reason we shall devote the majority of our attention to the introductory and concluding verses concerning the flood and to the New Testament passages dealing with this same subject.

While the flood was intended for the destruction of mankind, the ark was designed to save Noah and his family and to ensure the fulfillment of the divine purpose for the creation and the divine promise of salvation of Genesis 3:15. The key to our understanding of the event is to grasp the contrast between Noah and those of his generation.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God (Genesis 6:9).

What an epitaph! Noah was a righteous man. Noah’s character is described by two words, righteous and blameless. The word righteous (Hebrew: saddiq)

… is a word commonly used in reference to men. It means that they conform to a standard. Since Noah conformed to the divine standard, he met with God’s approval. However, the term is basically forensic. Therefore, though there be divine approval, that does not imply perfection on Noah’s part. It merely implies that those things that God sought in man were present in Noah.91

Without any pretense of perfection, Noah was a man who took God at His word. He met God’s expectations for man, while the rest of mankind was wicked.

The second expression used of Noah is ‘blameless’ (verse 9). The Hebrew word is tamim. “Since the Hebrew root involves the idea of ‘complete,’ we are justified in concluding only that there was an all-sided life, well rounded out in all its parts, with no essential quality missing.”92

Stepping back from these two technical expressions, Moses summarized the righteousness of Noah by writing, “Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).

Here is emphasized the fellowship between Noah and God, the intimacy of their union. Here also is reflected the continuity of the relationship. It was a daily walk, it was a dependable one.

Undoubtedly the relationship between Noah and God was based upon the revelation surrounding the creation of man and his fall. More particularly, it would include the promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15. Very possibly it involved other revelation that is not recorded for us by Moses.

The righteousness of Noah was based more upon his faith in God than in a fear of the consequences of disobedience, I believe. To my knowledge, Noah had no idea that divine judgment was to be meted out upon the earth until God disclosed it to him personally (verses 13ff). This revelation of the outpouring of divine wrath was given as a result of the relationship Noah had with God. Had men been aware of the flood that was coming, they may well have obeyed God out of mere fear of punishment. The relationship between Noah and God was not motivated by such fear, but by faith. Faith, not fear, is the biblical motive for a relationship with God (although there is such a thing as godly fear).

Let us be very clear about the righteousness of Noah. It was that righteousness which resulted from faith.

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith (Hebrews 11:7).

It was not Noah’s works which preserved him from judgment, but grace. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). Salvation has always been by grace, through faith; not of works, but unto good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).

In contrast to Noah’s righteousness was man’s rottenness: “Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:11,12).

Noah, alone, was righteous in his day. “Then the Lord said to Noah, “Enter the ark, you and all your household; for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time” (Genesis 7:1).

What this says of his family I do not know, but one can hardly believe that all who were in the ark would not have believed in God, at least after the flood! There was no other righteous person to be brought into the ark, for no one else walked with God. All of those who were said to be righteous in chapter 5 died before the flood occurred.

In and of themselves men were rotten or corrupt. What God determined to destroy was already self-destroyed.93 Man’s relationship to his fellow man could be summed up in the word ‘violence’.

I want you to note that Moses nowhere specifies the sins of this age. Such might incite our curiosity or lusts. More than this, I do not believe that the people of that time were destroyed because they had become a totally decadent society. The sinner who beats his wife, or practices homosexuality, or exists with only a bottle on skid-road is not necessarily the most wicked person in the eyes of God. I suspect that there were many among those who perished who were religious. I imagine that the society of that time was little different in its character than many others, with one notable exception—it seemingly had no restraint. The point is that men who are polite, clean-shaven, kind to older ladies, and so on, but who cheat on their income taxes or make a profit at the expense of someone’s dignity, are just as much sinners as those whose sins are socially acceptable.

The primary expression of man’s sin is in his rebellion and independent spirit toward God. He supposes that while God may exist, He does not care about man’s conduct or beliefs. If God does care, He does little about it. And worst of all is the conclusion that it is none of God’s business anyway.

Notice the condemnation of God of this kind of attitude:

Then He said to me, ‘The iniquity of the house of Israel and Judah is very, very great, and the land is filled with blood, and the city is full of perversion; for they say, “The Lord has forsaken the land, and the Lord does not see!” But as for Me, My eye will have no pity nor shall I spare, but I shall bring their conduct upon their heads’ (Ezekiel 9:9).

Man’s evil inclinations are fanned into a blazing inferno by the suggestion or belief that while God may exist, He neither cares about sin nor intervenes into human history to deal with it. Such thinking is fatal.

God did not conceal His purposes from Noah. To him He revealed His determination to destroy the wicked civilization of that day and yet to preserve both Noah and the seed through whom the promise of salvation would be realized. To Noah it was revealed that this destruction would come about by a flood, and that salvation for him and his family would be by means of an ark.94

While all of the instructions for the ark would not need to be recorded for us, we should notice that the details given are specific, even to the matter of the gathering of food. The ark was an incredible vessel, 450 feet in length, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high (6:15). It would serve to save both man and animals.

The Preservation of Man and Animals

The ark, now complete, having been constructed over many years according to the divine design, is entered at God’s command (7:1) by both man and animals. Before the flood began, God shut the door. I would imagine that had God not done so, Noah would have opened it to those who later wanted in, but the day of salvation must come to an end.

The source of water seems supernatural. It may well be that it had never rained before (cf. 2:6). Now the rain came in torrents. In addition the ‘fountains of the deep’ (7:11) were opened. Water, both from above and below, came forth for forty days (7:12). The waters prevailed on the earth for a total of 150 days (7:24), and then subsided over a period of months. Five months after the flood commenced the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat (8:4; cf. 7:11). It took considerable time for the waters to recede and for the ground to be dry enough to walk on. It was a little more than a year that Noah and his family spent on the ark. At the command of the Lord they gladly (I am certain) disembarked.

The Promise

Noah’s first act upon setting foot on the earth was to offer sacrifices to God. It was a further evidence of his faith, and surely an expression of his gratitude for the salvation that God had provided.

In response to the sacrifice of Noah, God made a solemn promise. I want you to understand, however, that this was a commitment made within the Godhead—it is a promise God resolved to Himself. The expression of this determination is given to Noah in chapter 9. This is what God purposed within Himself:

And the Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease (Genesis 8:21-22).

God’s resolve is that He will never again curse the ground or destroy every living thing as He has just done. Why would God make such a commitment? Surely He was not sorry for what He had done. Sin had to be judged, did it not?

The problem with the flood was that its effect was only temporary. The problem was not with creation, but with sin. The problem was not with men, but with man. To erase the slate and start over is inadequate, for what is needed is a new man for creation. This is what creation eagerly awaits.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:20-21).

God has therefore determined to deal differently with sin in the future. While sin has suffered a temporary setback at the flood, it will be dealt a fatal blow at the coming of Messiah. It is at this time that men will become new creatures (II Corinthians 5:17). After men are dealt with, a new heaven and a new earth will be provided as well (II Peter 3:13).

God’s promise of ultimate and final salvation is renewed in response to Noah’s expression of faith through a sacrificial offering. Until that day when this salvation is accomplished, God assures man that measures like the flood will not occur again.

The Meaning of the
Flood for Men of All Ages

First of all, the flood is a reminder to us of the matchless grace of God. While unbelievers found judgment, Noah found grace (Genesis 6:8).

To a certain extent, all of the people of that day experienced the grace of God. It was not until 120 years after the revelation of a coming judgment that it actually came upon men. That 120 year period was an age of grace in which the gospel was proclaimed.

The difference between Noah and those who perished was their response to God’s grace. Those who perished interpreted God’s grace as divine indifference. They concluded that God neither cared nor troubled Himself at the occasion of men’s sin.

Noah, on the other hand, recognized grace for what it really is—an opportunity to enter into an intimate relationship with God, and at the same time, to avoid divine displeasure and judgment. Noah’s years were spent in walking with God, building the ark, and proclaiming God’s Word.

The grace of God is clearly evidenced by this promise: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22).

Here is the irony of our day. As in the days of Noah, the perishing unbeliever looks at life as it is and asks “How could God be there at all and not do anything to right things—to set things in order?” He concludes that God is either dead, apathetic, or incapable of dealing with the world as it is, disregarding the warning of II Peter 3:8,9:

But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about His promises, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (II Peter 3:8,9).

As Noah, the believer recognizes that life as it is a reflection of the sovereign control of a gracious God over all of life:

For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him (Colossians 1:16-17).

The continuation of all things as they have been—day and night, summer and winter, springtime and harvest—causes the Christian to bow the knee to God in praise and submission to His providential care. The non-Christian, however, has twisted this promise of God’s providential care into an excuse for sin:

Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation’ (II Peter 3:3-4).

They fail to recognize that men are given this time to repent and to be reconciled to God. But just as the time of grace finally expired in Noah’s day, so it will for men today:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up (II Peter 3:10).

Our Lord taught that the days preceding the flood would be just like those preceding His final appearance to judge the earth:

For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking, they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be (Matthew 24:37-39).

These days were not described in terms of debauchery or decadence, but of normality—business as usual. Men in the last days will be doing what they always have. There is nothing wrong with eating and drinking, giving in marriage, or buying and selling. What is wrong is doing so without God, and supposing that we may sin as we please without paying its penalty. The age of grace will end. Let us respond rightly to God’s grace.

Second, we are instructed in the matter of the wrath of God. We learn from the flood that while God’s wrath is slow, it is also certain. Judgment must eventually be meted out to those who reject God’s grace.

Be very clear that while wrath and judgment are certain, they do not delight the heart of God. Nowhere in this passage is there one scene of suffering and anguish described in detail. Even Noah’s eyes were kept from beholding the torment suffered by those who died in the flood. The ark had no portholes, nor picture windows to look out on the destruction God wrought. The only opening was that at the top of the ark to allow light to shine in.

God does not delight in judgment, nor does He needlessly dwell upon it, but it is a certainty for those who resist His grace. Do not deceive yourself, my friend, there is a time when the offer of salvation will be withdrawn.

Sometime ago I visited a women who was dying of cancer. I was unable to share the gospel with her on my first visit because she had to be taken to therapy. When I knocked at the door on my second visit, her husband came and opened it far enough for me to see the woman, obviously failing in her sickness. When he asked her if she wanted to talk to me, she shook her head no. I never saw her again before her death.

Many people seem to think that they will wait until one foot is in the grave and the other is on a banana peel to be saved. It usually doesn’t happen that way. God still closes the door of salvation. When we have lived our lives in sin and rebellion against God, we most often will not be given the luxury of making a deathbed decision. It sometimes happens, I grant, but seldom.

Then, too, God’s judgment is often allowing things to take their own course. The account of the flood seems almost like creation reverted to the conditions of the second day of creation (cf. Genesis 1:6-7).

In the book of Colossians we are told that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (Colossians 1:16-17). Men who reject God live as though God did not exist at all. In the Great Tribulation, God is going to give men seven years to discover what living without God is like. God’s restraining and controlling hand will be withdrawn and chaos will reign. God’s judgment is often giving men both what they want and what they deserve—the natural consequences of their deeds.

Finally, let us consider the subject of the salvation of God. In the case of Noah we must observe that God’s way of salvation was restrictive. God provided only one way of salvation (an ark) and only one door. Men could not be saved any way they wished, but only God’s way. Such is the salvation which God offers men today.

Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’ (John 14:6).

The salvation of the ark was also instructive. It provides us with a picture of the salvation that was accomplished in Christ. It was for those in Moses’ day a type of Christ. The difference between those who were saved and those who perished in the flood was the difference between being in the ark and being outside it.

Those who were saved and those who died all went through the flood. But those who survived were those in the ark which sheltered them from the effects of God’s divine displeasure on sin. Those outside the ark, as well as those within, knew the ark existed and were informed that God had warned of a judgment to come. Some chose to ignore these facts, while Noah acted upon them.

So it is today. God has said that there must be a penalty for sin—death. Those who are in Christ by faith have suffered the wrath of God in Christ. On the cross of Calvary the wrath of God was poured out upon the sinless Son of God, Jesus Christ. Those who trust in Him have experienced the salvation of God in Christ. Those who refuse to trust in Him and be in Him by an act of the will, must suffer the wrath of God outside of Christ, our ark. Knowing about Christ no more saves a man than knowing about the ark saved men in Noah’s day. It is being in the ark, being in Christ, that saves!

God’s way of salvation was not a glamorous one. I believe that many would have been on board the Queen Mary if Noah had built it, but not on the ark. There was little appeal to the eye on that ark, but it was sufficient for the task of saving men in a flood.

Many refuse to be saved if it cannot be achieved in some glorious way, one that is appealing and acceptable. I would not want to spend a year cooped up with noisy, smelly animals any more than you, but that was God’s way.

Our Lord Jesus, when He came to offer salvation to men, did not come as One Who had great personal magnetism or appeal either. As Isaiah spoke of Him 700 years before His coming,

He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him (Isaiah 53:2).

Many would come to salvation if it appealed to them in the flesh. God’s salvation is not of this kind.

Sometimes Christians fail at this same point. They think that God’s way is a glorious one all the way. All miracles and magnificence. No suffering, no pain, no agony, no heartache. I must tell you that God’s way is not always as glorious as we might wish, but it alone is the way of deliverance and peace and joy.

And this salvation which God provided was one that was entered into by faith in God’s revealed Word. Noah probably never had seen rain, nor heard the clap of thunder. But God said that there was to be a flood and that he was to build an ark. Noah believed God and acted on his faith.

Noah’s faith was no academic faith—a mere faith in principle, but an active faith—a faith in practice. He spent 120 years building that ark, committing himself to the God he knew. Our faith, too, must be active.

Noah, we are told, was a preacher. I do not believe that he often spoke from behind a pulpit, but from behind a plank and a hammer. It was Noah’s lifestyle that condemned the men of his day and warned of the judgment to come. Noah’s whole life was shaped by his certainty that judgment was coming.

We who are Christians know that our Lord will again return to judge the world. I wonder how much it has affected our daily lives? Can your neighbors and mine tell that we are living in the light of a coming day of judgment and of salvation. I sincerely hope so.

90 Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 32. Vos, in the following pages gives an excellent summary of some of the most significant ancient accounts and suggests their relationship to the Genesis account.

91 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 264-265.

Leitch further defines the concept of righteousness:

“In its general use, it represents any conformity to a standard whether that standard has to do with the inner character of a person, or the objective standard of accepted law. Thayer suggests the definition, ‘the state of him who is such as he ought to be.’ In the wide sense, it refers to that which is upright or virtuous, displaying integrity, purity of life, and correctness in feeling and action.” A. H. Leitch, “Righteousness,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), V, p. 104.

92 Leupold, I, p. 265.

93 “The Hebrew for corrupt(ed) (or ‘destroyed’) also makes it plain that what God decided to ‘destroy’ (13) had been virtually self-destroyed already.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 87.

94 Interestingly, the word used in this account for the ark (teba), is found only elsewhere in Exodus chapter 2 of the ‘ark’ into which the baby Moses was placed by his mother to preserve the child from the Egyptians.
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9. The Noahic Covenant—A New Beginning (Genesis 8:20-9:17)


Ours is not an age that desires to make long-term commitments. The covenant of marriage is often avoided, and vows that are made lack the permanence and commitment of former days. Guarantees are given for a very short period. Contracts are often vaguely worded or are undermined by loopholes and fine print.

Strangely, Christians seem to think that clear, contractual agreements are somehow unspiritual, especially between two believers. ‘A man should be as good as his word,’ we are told. And so he should.

It is interesting to observe that the infinite, all-powerful, changeless God of the universe has chosen to deal with men in the form of covenants. The Noahic Covenant of Genesis chapter 9 is the first biblical covenant of the Bible. While the word ‘covenant’ appears in Genesis 6:18, it refers to the Noahic Covenant of chapter 9.

This Noahic Covenant is important to us for a number of reasons. As I deliver this message, it is raining outside, and rather heavily, too. If the Noahic Covenant were not still in effect, you and I would be greatly concerned. The calm which we experience is a direct result of the covenant God initiated centuries ago with Noah.

The Noahic Covenant, in addition to the fact that it is still in force today, also provides us with a pattern for all of the other biblical covenants. As we come to understand this covenant, we will more fully appreciate the significance of all of the covenants, and especially the New Covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Finally, the Noahic Covenant lays down the foundation for the existence of human government. It addresses in particular the matter of capital punishment. It is here that our consideration of this much debated subject must begin.

The Divine Commitment

You will be aware that these last verses of Genesis chapter eight were discussed in my last message. While these three verses are not a part of the Noahic Covenant, they surely are a prelude to it. Therefore, we must begin our study with them.

Technically, Genesis 8:20-22 is not a promise which God gave to Noah. Rather it is a purpose confirmed in the heart of God.

And the Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, ‘I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living things as I have done’ (Genesis 8:21).

These are not words spoken to Noah, they are purposes reaffirmed in the mind of God. Covenant theologians place much emphasis on two or three theological covenants: the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption.95 All of these covenants, while they may well be ‘biblical’ in essence, are implicit, rather than explicit. Covenant theologians usually tend to emphasize these implied theological covenants at the expense of the clearly biblical covenants, such as the Noahic Covenant. On the other hand, dispensational theologians often stress the biblical covenants and disparage the theological covenants.

In Genesis chapters 8 and 9 both elements are to be found. The eternal purpose of God to save men was made long before the days of Noah (cf. Ephesians 1:4; 3:11; II Thessalonians 2:13; II Timothy 1:9, etc.). What we find in Genesis 8:20-22 is not the creation of God’s purpose to save men, but the confirmation of that purpose in history. Just as God reaffirmed His purpose here, such recommitment is often good for men as well (cf. Philippians 3:8-16).

The covenant of God with Himself was occasioned by the sacrifices offered up by Noah (Genesis 8:20). God’s resolve was to never again destroy the earth by a flood (cf. 9:11). I understand the words, “… I will never again curse the ground on account of many… ” (verse 21), to be parallel with the following expression, “… and I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done” (verse 21).96

The reason for God’s resolve is based upon the nature of man: “For the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).

Righteous Noah (6:9) will soon be found naked in a drunken stupor (9:21). No matter how many times the earth’s slate is wiped clean by a flood, the problem will remain if but one man exists. The problem is within man—it is his sinful nature. His predisposition toward sin is not learned, it is innate—he is “evil from his youth.” As a result, a full restoration must begin with a new man. This is what God historically purposed to accomplish.

This purpose is partially expressed in verse 22: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

A New Beginning

Ray Stedman titles these verses (and verses 8-17) “Rules of the Game,”97 and I think he has truly caught the significance of this section. A new beginning, with a new set of rules, is evident by the similarity of these verses to Genesis chapter one.

Here (Genesis 9:1) and there (Genesis 1:28) God blessed His creatures and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Here (Genesis 9:3) and there (Genesis 1:29-30) God prescribed the food man could eat.

There are differences, however, which indicate that the new beginning is to be different from the old. God pronounced the original creation ‘good’ (cf. 1:21, 31). The world of Noah’s day received no such commendation, for the men who possessed it were sinful (8:21).

Adam was charged to subdue the earth and to rule over the animal kingdom (1:28). Noah was given no such command. Instead, God placed in the animals a fear of man by which man could achieve a measure of control over them. (The reason my dog obeys me—when he does—is because he fears me.)

While Adam and his contemporaries seem to have been vegetarians (Genesis 1:29-30; cf. 9:3), Noah and his descendants could eat flesh (9:3-4). There was, however, one stipulation. They could not eat the blood of the animal, for the life of the animal was in its blood. This was to teach man not only that God values life, but that He owns it. God allows man to take the life of animals in order to survive, but they must not eat the blood.

One may puzzle that flesh could be eaten after the flood, but not before (or so it seems). It may be that conditions on the earth so changed that protein was now necessary for life. More likely, man must be brought to the realization that, because of his sin, he could only live by the death of another. Man lives by the death of animals.

Most important of all, man is taught to reverence life. Men before the fall were obviously men of violence (cf. Genesis 6:11) who, like Cain (Genesis 4:8), and Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24), had no regard for human life. This is more emphatically stated in verses 5 and 6 of chapter 9:

And surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.

The life of man was precious and belonged to God. It was God’s to give and His alone to take. Animals which shed man’s blood must be put to death (verse 5, cf. Exodus 21:28,29). Men who willfully take the life of another must be put to death ‘by man’ (verse 6; cf. Numbers 35:33).98

In addition to murder, suicide is prohibited by God’s command in these verses. Life belongs to God—not only the life of animals and of others, but our own as well. We must realize that suicide is taking our life into our own hands when God says it belongs to Him. In the words of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21).

This passage seems to shed light on the controversial subject of abortion also. Man is not to shed the blood of man. The life of man is in the blood (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 17:11). Aside from many other considerations, must we not conclude that at the time a fetus has blood, it has life? Must we not also acknowledge that to shed this blood, to destroy this fetus, is to violate God’s command and to be subject to the death penalty?99

Man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 9:6). In view of this fact, murder is much more than an act of hostility against man—it is an affront to God. To attack man is to attack God in Whose image he was created.

We have said that murder is sin because life belongs to God. We have also shown that murder must be severely dealt with because the victim is a person created in the divine image. One further reason for capital punishment remains in this passage: man must shed the blood of the murderer because he is also a part of the divine image. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (verse 6).

God did not take the life of Cain when he killed his brother, Abel. I believe God allowed Cain to live so that we could see the consequences of allowing the murderer to go free. Lamech could kill a young lad for what may have been a mere insult and boast of it (Genesis 4:23-24). The men who died in the flood were men of violence (6:11). God did punish sin, but He delayed the execution until the days of the flood so that we could learn the high price of allowing the murderer to go free.

Now that all mankind had perished because of his sin, God could require society to take the life of the murderer. In this act of capital punishment, man would act on behalf of God—he would reflect the moral image of God, namely, His indignation and sentence upon the murderer.

Man (and by this I understand Moses to be referring to society and its governmental agency) is required to execute the murderer to reflect the moral purity of His Creator. Government acts in God’s behalf in punishing the evildoer and rewarding those who do good:

Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behaviors but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of Gods an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil (Romans 13:1-4).

The ‘sword’ which Paul mentions in verse 4 is the sword used by the executioner to carry out capital punishment. Our Lord Himself gave testimony to the fact that government had been given the task of executing law-breakers:

Pilate therefore said to Him ‘You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered, ‘You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin’ (John 19:10-11).

The command concerning capital punishment is, I believe, the cornerstone of any society of sinful men. The animal kingdom is to be controlled, to a great extent, by means of their fear of man (9:2). Man’s sinful tendencies, also, are kept in check by his fear of the consequences. Any society which loses its reverence for life cannot endure long. For this reason, God instituted capital punishment as a gracious restraint upon man’s sinful tendency toward violence. Because of this, mankind can live in relative peace and security until God’s Messiah has dealt the death blow to sin.

And so a new age has dawned. Not an age of naive optimism, but one to be lived by clear commands. And, as we shall see in the following verses, one that has a hope for the future.

The Noahic Covenant

God’s covenant with Noah and his descendants displays many of the characteristics of subsequent covenants which God had made with man. For this reason, we shall highlight some of the covenant’s more obvious features.

(1) The Noahic Covenant was initiated and dictated by God. The sovereignty of God is clearly seen in this covenant. While some ancient covenants were the result of negotiation, this one was not. God initiated the covenant as an outward expression of His purpose revealed in Genesis 3:20-22. God dictated the terms of the covenant to Noah, and there was no discussion.

A friend of mine owned a car that was ‘on its last leg.’ With my encouragement, he went to a car lot to find something more dependable. He found a car which showed promise but decided to give the matter more deliberation. When he got into his old car to leave, it wouldn’t start. As you can imagine, my friend was in no position to bargain. He took the other car without any negotiation concerning the price. That was precisely the situation of Noah. And I might add, would we dare to question God’s terms today? I think not!

(2) The Noahic Covenant was made with Noah and all successive generations: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creation that is with you, for all successive generations;’” ( Genesis 9:12).

This covenant will remain in force until the time when our Lord returns to the earth to cleanse it by fire (II Peter 3:10).

(3) This is a universal covenant. While some covenants involve a small number, this particular covenant includes “all flesh.” That is, all living creatures, including man and animals:

Now behold, I Myself do establish My covenant with you, and with your descendants after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that comes out of the ark, even every beast of the earth (Genesis 9:9,10).

(4) The Noahic Covenant is an unconditional covenant. Some covenants were contingent upon both parties carrying out certain stipulations. Such was the case of the Mosaic covenant. If Israel kept the law of God, they would experience the blessings and prosperity of God. If not, they would be expelled from the land (Deuteronomy 28). The blessings of the Noahic covenant were not conditional. God would give regularity of seasons and would not destroy the earth by a flood simply because He said so. While certain commands were given to mankind in verses 1-7, these are not viewed as conditions to the covenant. They are technically not included as a part of the covenant.

(5) This covenant was God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by a flood: “and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).

God will destroy the earth by fire (II Peter 3:10), but only after salvation has been purchased by the Messiah and the elect are removed, even as Noah was protected from the wrath of God.

(6) The sign of the Noahic Covenant is the rainbow:

I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. And it shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shalt be seen in the cloud and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh (Genesis 9:13-15).

Every covenant has its accompanying sign. The sign of the Abrahamic Covenant is circumcision (Genesis 17:15-27); that of the Mosaic Covenant is the observance of the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17).

The “sign” of the rainbow is appropriate. It consists of the reflection of the rays of the sun in the particles of moisture in the clouds. The water which destroyed the earth causes the rainbow. Also, the rainbow appears at the end of a storm. So this sign assures man that the storm of God’s wrath (in a flood) is over.

Most interesting is the fact that the rainbow is not designed so much for man’s benefit (in this text, at least) but for God’s. God said that the rainbow would cause Him to remember His covenant with man. What a comfort to know that God’s faithfulness is our guarantee.

Conclusions and Application

For the Israelites who first received this revelation from God, the Noahic Covenant gave reasons for a number of the rules laid down in the Mosiac Law. The laws pertaining to capital punishment, for example, found their origin and explanation in Genesis chapter 9. The meticulous matters concerning blood take on added meaning in the light of this chapter.

The prophets of old referred to the Noahic Covenant as well. Isaiah reminded the nation, Israel, of God’s faithfulness in keeping the Noahic Covenant:

“‘For this is like the days of Noah to Me; when I swore that the waters of Noah should not flood the earth again, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you, nor will I rebuke you. For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,’ says the Lord who has compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:9-10).

At the time of Isaiah’s writing there seemed to be little grounds for hope as a nation. Isaiah reminded the nation that their hope was as sure as the Word of God. God’s promise of coming redemption should be viewed in the light of His faithfulness in keeping His covenant with Noah and his descendants.

The language of Genesis chapter nine was employed by Hosea to assure God’s people of their restoration:

“In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18).

Jeremiah also spoke of God’s future blessings by reminding men of God’s faithfulness in keeping the Noahic Covenant:

“Thus says the Lord, Who gives the sun for light by day, and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; the Lord of hosts is His name: ‘If this fixed order departs from before Me,’ declares the Lord, ‘then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation before Me forever.’ Thus says the Lord, ‘If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:35-37; cf. also 33:20-26; Psalm 89:30-37).

The Israelites could look forward to the salvation which God would bring to pass. We can look backward to that which God has accomplished by His Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. While Israel awaits the complete fulfillment of God’s covenant in the Millennium, they may do so with confidence in the God Who keeps His commitments. We, too, as Christians can be fully assured of God’s faithfulness.

The Noahic Covenant in many ways foreshadowed the New Covenant. Consequently, the New Covenant fulfilled much that the Noahic Covenant anticipated. The shedding of blood took on new meaning in the Noahic Covenant. The shedding of Christ’s blood at Calvary suddenly brought the ninth chapter of Genesis into full focus.

Since all of the biblical covenants culminate in the New Covenant which greatly overshadows them, let us take a few moments to compare the features of the New Covenant with the Noahic Covenant.

The New Covenant is promised in Jeremiah 31:30-34:

But every one will die for his own iniquity; each man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth will be set on edge. ‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. And they shall not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’ (Jeremiah 31:30-34).

Our Lord instituted this covenant by His death on the cross of Calvary. The sign of the covenant is the Lord’s table:

And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And He took a cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom’ (Matthew 26:26-29).

The writer to the Hebrews stressed that the New Covenant superseded the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and is vastly superior to it.

The New Covenant, like the Noahic, was initiated by God, and it was accomplished by Him. While all flesh have benefited from the common grace of God promised in the Noahic Covenant, only those who are ‘in Christ’ benefit from the blessings of the New Covenant. It is the New Covenant ‘in His blood,’ that is experienced by those who have trusted in the shed blood of Christ, the Lamb of God, for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. Our Lord said to his followers:

Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).

By this He meant that one must not only acknowledge Christ’s deity and the death that He died for sinners, but must also make this a vital part of his life by trusting only in Christ for salvation.

The only condition for entering into the blessings of the New Covenant is the expression of personal faith in Christ by receiving Him:

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name (John 1:12).

And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:11-12).

Like the Noahic Covenant, those who are under the New Covenant have no need to fear the future outbreak of divine wrath. While the Noahic Covenant guaranteed all flesh that God would never again destroy all life by a flood, the New Covenant assures man that he will not face the outpouring of divine wrath through other means, such as fire (II Peter 3:10).

… and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:24).

What a wonderful comfort covenants are. They permit man to know exactly where he stands with God. Do not try to negotiate your own contract with God, my friend. You may face God’s eternal wrath by reliance upon yourself, or you may experience divine forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Christ. The terms which God has laid down for peace are very clear. Have you surrendered to Him? May God enable you to do so.

95 “The theology of the Reformed churches, in the place which it gives to the covenants, has its prototype in patristic theology as systematized by Augustine of Hippo. It represents the whole of Scripture as being covered by two covenants: (1) the covenant of works, and (2) the covenant of grace. The parties to the former covenant were God and Adam. The promise of the covenant was Life. The proviso was perfect obedience by Adam. And the penalty of failure was death. To save man from the penalty of his disobedience, a second covenant, made from all eternity, came into operation, namely, the covenant of grace. Throughout the OT period there were successive proclamations of this covenant.” “Covenant Theology,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 144.

96 One would initially expect the reference to the cursing of the ground to refer to Genesis 3:17 and 5:29. Both theologically (cf. Romans 8:19-23) and practically we know the curse of 3:17 has not been removed. Any gardener knows this from experience.

The word for ‘curse’ in Genesis is Qalal, while in 3:17 and 5:29 the word is Arur. Interestingly, both words are employed in Genesis 12:3. The curse of the ground in Genesis 8:21 is the flood which destroyed every living thing, not the curse of Genesis 3:17.

97 Ray Stedman, The Beginnings (Waco: Word Books, 1978), pp. 116-130.

98 Other Scripture makes it clear that only deliberate and premeditated murder is in mind. God made provision for those who accidentally killed another in the cities of refuge (cf. Deuteronomy l9:1ff).

99 The death of a fetus, as in other instances, may have mitigating circumstances and thus not all abortions could be called murder, just as all deaths cannot be so defined. In general, however, the deliberate destruction of the life of a fetus is murder, I believe.
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10. The Nakedness of Noah and the Cursing of Canaan (Genesis 9:18-10:32)


The command of God to destroy the Canaanites has troubled Christians and non-believers alike:

Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, in order that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you could sin against the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 20:16-18).

While the killing of the Canaanites will probably always cause us to be uneasy on the subject, Genesis chapter 9 gives us a great deal of insight into the problem.

You should understand that this command was far more difficult for the Israelites of old than for us today. Had God not hardened the hearts of the Canaanites so that they refused to seek a treaty with Israel (cf. Joshua 11:20), Israel very likely would not have aggressively sought to obey the Lord’s command to kill them.

We may fail to appreciate the situation which Israel faced as they prepared to possess the land from the Canaanites; they had little or no contact with these pagan peoples. The Israelites would have found it very difficult to grasp the reasons for being utterly merciless with their enemies, the Canaanites. Genesis chapter 9 puts this matter into perspective. It explains the origin of the nations with whom Israel must relate in some fashion throughout its history. In particular, this account explains the moral depravity of the Canaanites which necessitates their extermination.

Genesis 9 is crucial for another reason, also. It is a passage which has long been employed to justify slavery and, in particular, the sinful subjugation of the Black peoples throughout the centuries. The curse of Ham, we are told, is simply being fulfilled as the Blacks live out their lives in servitude to the other races, particularly the Whites. As we shall see, this interpretation cannot be maintained by any careful consideration of our text.

The Cursing of Canaan

The verses we are considering should be understood in the context of the section in which they are found. Genesis 9:18 begins a new division which continues to chapter 11, verse 10. Moses wrote of the repopulation of the earth through the sons of Noah. Genesis 9:20-27 explains the three-fold division of the race for its spiritual dimensions. While the Canaanites are under God’s curse, Shem will be the line through whom the Messiah will come and Japheth will find blessing in union with the line (and the seed, ultimately the Messiah) of Shem.

Chronologically, chapter 10 should follow the confusion at Babel (11:1-9). Those verses in chapter 11 explain the reason for the dispersion of the nations. Chapter 10 describes the results of that dispersion. But chapter 10 is given first to allow the emphasis to fall upon the narrowing of the godly line down to Abram.

After the flood, Noah began to farm the land by planting a vineyard. The result of his toil was the fruit of the vine, wine. While the first mention of wine is not without its negative connotations, we should not conclude that, due to its abuse here, the Bible consistently or without exception condemns its use (cf. Deuteronomy 14:24-26; I Timothy 5:23).

Many have been troubled at the deplorable condition of Noah, the man who before the fall was described as a “righteous man, blameless in his time” (6:9). Some have suggested that fermentation may not have occurred until after the flood, and that Noah was simply suffering the innocent results of his inventive efforts.

While we should not seek to excuse Noah, we must recognize that Moses did not emphasize the guilt of Noah, but rather the sin of Ham. Some have suggested various types of evil took place within Noah’s tent. While the language employed might leave room for certain sexual sins (cf. Leviticus18). I do not personally find any reason for assuming any misconduct on the part of Noah beyond the indiscretion of drunkenness and its result in nakedness. Perhaps the best description of Noah’s conduct and condition is that of the word “unbecoming.”

I am impressed with the way in which Moses reported this incident, with a minimum of details and description. To have written any more would have been to perpetuate the sin of Ham. Hollywood would have taken us inside the tent in wide-screen technicolor. Moses leaves us outside with Shem and Japheth.

It would seem that Ham and his two brothers were alerted to Noah’s condition so that all three of them were standing outside the tent: “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside” (Genesis 9:22).

While Shem and Japheth refused to go inside, Ham had no reservations about entering the tent. Whatever the failing of Noah, he was inside his own tent, in privacy (9:21). That is the way Shem and Japheth wanted it. Ham entered in, violating the principle of privacy, yet not to assist his father but to be amused at his expense.

Ham did nothing to preserve the dignity of his father. He did not see to it that Noah was properly covered. Instead he went outside to his two brothers and graphically described the folly which had overtaken their father. It seems to me that Ham also may have encouraged Shem and Japheth to go into the tent to see this for themselves.100

The lengths to which Shem and Japheth went in order not to see their father seem almost extreme in our sexually permissive society. But then, our televisions have desensitized us to nakedness or rudeness. There is nothing which is not advertised, even products which once were considered very private.

Taking “the” garment, the one which Noah should have been wearing, upon their shoulders, they went backward into the tent. Without looking upon their father, they covered him and left the tent.

In the morning, when Noah awoke from his drunkenness, he knew what had happened. We do not know how he learned of this. Perhaps he was alert enough to remember the events of the previous night. One thing I am certain about—Shem and Japheth did not tell Noah, or anyone else. I suspect that the story was well known around the camp the next morning, and probably due to Ham. If Ham did not hesitate to tell his brothers, why hesitate to tell all?

Regardless of Noah’s source of information, his response was one with broad implications. Canaan, the youngest son of Ham, was cursed. He was to be the lowest servant101 to his brothers. While some understand the “brothers” of verse 25 to refer to his fellow man, I believe it refers specifically to Canaan’s earthly brothers, the other sons of Ham. In this way, Canaan’s curse is intensified in these three verses. In verse 25, Canaan will be subservient to his brothers; in verses 26 and 27, to his father’s brothers, Shem and Japheth.

Viewed in this way, it is impossible to see any application of this passage to the subjugation of the Black people of the earth. Ham was not cursed in this passage, but Canaan. Canaan was not the father of the Black peoples, but of the Canaanites who lived in Palestine and who threatened the Israelites.

In verse 26, it is not Shem who is blessed, but his God: “He also said, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant” (Genesis 9:26).

By this, the godly line is to be preserved through Shem. From his seed the Messiah was said to come. The blessing comes not from Shem, but through Shem. The blessing flows out of the relationship which he has with Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. And the servitude of Canaan is one of the evidences of this blessing.

The Lord will cause your enemies who rise up against you to be defeated before you; they shall come out against you one way and shall flee before you seven ways. The Lord will command the blessing upon you in your barns and in all that you put your hand to, and He will bless you in the land which the Lord your God gives you. The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself as He swore to you, if you will keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and walk in His ways (Deuteronomy 28:7-9).

Just as Shem’s blessing consists in his relationship to Yahweh, Japheth will be blessed in his relationship to Shem.

May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant (Genesis 9:27).

The name “Japheth” is thought to mean ‘to enlarge’ or ‘to make wide.’102 By a word play, Noah blessed Japheth by using his own name.103 The blessing of Japheth is to be found in relationship to Shem and not independently. This promise is stated more specifically in chapter 12, verse 3: “And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God promised to bless Abram, and the other nations in him. All who blessed Abram would experience God’s blessing, while all who cursed him would be cursed. Again, Canaan will be subjected at those times when Japheth is found in union with Shem.

There is a clear correspondence between the activities of Ham, Shem, and Japheth and the curses and blessings which follow them. Shem and Japheth honored God when they acted together to preserve the honor of their father. Ham dishonored both his father and his God by relishing the humiliation of Noah. So Ham was cursed and Shem and Japheth were blessed in cooperative unity.

The problem which must arise from the cursing of Canaan is this: Why did God curse Canaan for the sin of Ham? Beyond this, why did God curse the Canaanites, a nation, for the sin of one man?

The explanation which best seems to answer these questions is that the words of Noah convey not only a cursing, and a blessing, but a prophecy. While it is true that the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, this is only “to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 20:5). If this principle were to be applied, all the sons of Ham should have been cursed.

By prophetic revelation, Noah foresaw that the moral flaws evidenced by Ham would be most fully manifested in Canaan and in his offspring. Knowing this, the curse of God falls upon the Canaanites because of the sinfulness Noah foresaw.104 The emphasis thus falls upon the fact that the Canaanites would be cursed because of their sin, not due to Ham’s. I think this explains why Canaan is cursed and not Ham, or the rest of his sons.

The words of Noah, then, contain a prophecy. Canaan will most reflect the moral flaws of his father, Ham. And the Canaanites will manifest these same tendencies in their society. Because of the sinfulness of the Canaanites foreseen by Noah, the curse of God is expressed. The character of these three individuals and their destiny will be corporately reflected in the nations which emerge from them.

The Table of the Nations

Much work has been done on this chapter, but we shall restrict our efforts to the highlights. As we have previously mentioned, the confusion of Babel chronologically precedes this chapter.

The order in which Moses dealt with the three sons of Noah reflects the purpose and the emphasis of Moses. Japheth is dealt with first because he is least important to the theme being developed. Ham is next discussed because of the important part the Canaanites played in the history of Israel. Shem is mentioned last because he is the principle person of the chapter. He is the one through whom the “seed of the woman” will come. The godly line will be preserved through Shem.

The table of the nations evidences a selectivity which is also subservient to the purpose of the account. Only those nations are described who will play a key role in the national development of Israel in the land of Canaan.

In general, the identity of the descendants of the three sons of Noah is known. From Japheth come the Indo-Europeans, the best known of which would be the Greeks. Even secular Hellenistic history looks to Iapetos as their forefather.105 Leupold tells us:

… the Japhethites are seen to be spread abroad over a well-defined area extending from Spain to Media and pretty much in one straight line from east to west.106

Most of us would be of the line of Japheth.

Ham was the forefather of those who made up great cities and empires, including Babylon, Assyria, Ninevah, and Egypt. Put was probably the father of the Black peoples. From Canaan come those nations which made up those known generally as the Canaanites:

And Canaan became the father of Sidon, his first-born, and Heth and the Jebusite and the Amorite and the Girgashite and the Hivite and the Arkite and the Sinite and the Arvadite and the Zemarite and the Hamathite; and afterward the families of the Canaanite were spread abroad (Genesis 10:15-18; cf. Deuteronomy 20:17).

Their territory was that in close proximity to Israel:

And the territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza; as you go toward Sodom and Gomorrah and Admah and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha (Genesis 10:19).

Shem is the forefather of the Shemites. We must be careful not to confuse the designation with those peoples who speak Semitic languages. The Semitic languages include peoples of both Shem and Ham.107 Ross states the descendants of Shem as “… families stretching from Asia Minor to the northern mountains of the Tigris region, to Sumerian U, to the Persian Gulf, and ultimately to North India.”108

The most prominent of Shem’s descendants is Eber, the father of Peleg (10:25), the forefather of Abram (cf. 11:14-26).

The purpose of chapter 10 is best summarized by Cassuto. It was:

(a) to show that Divine Providence is reflected in the distribution of the nations over the face of the earth not less than in other acts of the world’s creation and administration; (b) to determine relationship between the people of Israel and the other peoples; (c) to teach the unity of post-diluvian humanity, which, like antediluvian mankind, was wholly descended from one pair of human beings.109


Genesis chapters 9 and 10 were vital to the nation Israel as it anticipated the occupation of the promised land of Canaan. The cursing of Canaan explained the source of the moral depravity of the Canaanites of their day. More than any other people, their sexual depravity is evidenced by archaeological findings. Albright has written,

Comparison of the cult objects and mythological texts of the Canaanites with those of the Egyptians and Mesopotamians forces one conclusion, that Canaanite religion was much more completely centered on sex and its manifestations. In no country has so relatively great a number of figurines of the naked goddess of fertility, some distinctly obscene, been found. Nowhere does the cult of serpents appear so strongly. The two goddesses Astarte (Ashtaroth) and Anath are called ‘the great goddesses which conceive but do not bear.’110

In addition to explaining the reason for the extermination of the Canaanites, Genesis chapter 10 helps to identify the Canaanites:

Now the Canaanites are treated, because Moses knew that Israel’s associations with these people were destined to be many (cf. 15:16), and Israel must also definitely know who were Canaanites and who not, because of Israel’s duty to drive them out of the land of Canaan (Deut. 20:17 and parallels).111

Sadly, we must realize that Israel failed to fully apply the teaching of this passage. They did not completely destroy the Canaanites and they sometimes intermarried, to their own detriment.

There is a great lesson in this portion of Scripture for us:

Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved. And do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written, ‘THE PEOPLE SAT DOWN TO EAT AND DRINK, AND STOOD UP TO PLAY.’ Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in one day. Nor let us try the Lord as some of them did, and were destroyed by the serpents. Nor grumble, as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (I Corinthians 10:6-12).

I have agonized over this passage because somehow it did not seem to intersect my life with great force. Suddenly it occurred to me that this is precisely the point of the story of the nakedness of Noah for men today.

We have found it very difficult to be greatly impressed by the fact that Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent. After all, some would tell us, did his sin hurt anyone? Was his nakedness not in the privacy of his tent? We are more struck by the ‘extreme’ measures taken by Shem and Japheth than we are of Noah’s nakedness, are we not?

Because of this, scholars have tried to find a more shocking sin that was committed inside that tent. Some have suggested that Ham witnessed the sexual intimacy of his mother and father. Others have taught that Ham committed a homosexual act with his semi-conscious father. But none of this is demanded by the text.

Our great problem today is that we have almost no sense of identification with the attitudes or actions of Noah’s two godly sons, Shem and Japheth. We feel no shame and no shock at the report of Noah inside his tent. And the reason is the real shock of the passage: We are a part of a society that senses no shame and no shock at moral and sexual indecency. Virtually every kind of sexual intimacy is portrayed upon the movie and television screen.

Even abnormal and perverted conduct has become routine to us. Without any sense of indecency the most intimate and private items are advertised before us and our children.

Do you see the point? We are not troubled by Noah’s nakedness because we are so much farther down the path of decadence that we hardly flinch at what happened in this passage. Now, my friend, if the condemnation of God fell upon Ham’s actions and upon those who walked in his ways, what does that say to you and to me? God forgive us for being beyond the point of shockability and shame. God save us from the sins of the Canaanites. God teach us to value moral purity and to be ruthless with sin. May we refuse to let it live among us, just as Israel was taught in this text.

There is another level of application. Most of us tend to think of godliness in terms of the sins we commit or shun. This account informs us that one test of Christian character is our response to the sins of others. Ham was seemingly amused by Noah’s sin, rather than appalled by it. Isn’t that what happens in our living rooms on our television sets? We do not find horror in sin, but humor.

How are we to respond to sinners today? Are we to kill them like Israel did the Canaanites? The New Testament gives us some clear instruction on this matter:

And do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them; for it is disgraceful even to speak of the things which are done by them in secret (Ephesians 5:11-12).

Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, looking to yourselves, lest you too be tempted (Galatians 6:1).

Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter 4:8).

… save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (Jude 23).

Unlike Ham, we are to practice the principle of privacy which Paul reiterated in Ephesians 5:12. Some sins should not be scrutinized. We should not explore them, and neither should we share what we know with others. This principle, I believe, was followed by Moses as he briefly and without detail or descriptive embellishments, recorded the sin of Noah and its consequences. Much is made of the consequences, while little is said of the circumstances. Let us learn from this.

Notice that in this passage in Ephesians we are taught to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness (4:11). This is not to be done by exploiting sin or by dwelling on darkness, but by living as lights, shining in a darkened world.

… until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be hidden, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; ( Ephesians 4:13-14).

Sin is exposed by righteousness, not by reporting the deeds of wickedness.

In Galatians 6:1 we are taught to restore the one who has fallen into sin. Here Paul emphasized the attitude of the mature who would undertake this obligation. The person must be handled with a gentle spirit, one which is all too well aware of his own weaknesses in this same area.

Peter taught us that sin is best dealt with when it is known to the fewest number of people. Love does not cover sins in the way that we saw at Watergate. That was a cover up. It sought to keep illegal actions from public scrutiny. The covering of which Peter wrote is that which endeavors to keep the sin at its smallest scale, so that those guilty may find forgiveness and reconciliation, while others will not be tempted or hindered by a knowledge of that sin.

Finally, Jude reminds us of the hatred we must have for the sin and the desire of holiness to remain pure to the glory of God. We are not to hate the sinner, but the sin. We are not to stand aloof from the one who has fallen, but to snatch him away as from fire.

In conclusion, I find in these three men, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, a picture of men throughout the history of God’s dealings with men. In Genesis chapter 12 we find the line through whom the Savior will come being narrowed to the offspring of Abraham. Men will be blessed or cursed by their response to him (Genesis 12:1-3).

At Calvary we find the epitome of man’s sin evidenced. Shem was present in the Jewish religious leaders who wanted the Messiah dead and out of the way. Japheth was present in the Romans who participated jointly with the Jews to crucify the Lord of glory. And Ham was also present in Simon of Cyrene, who bore the cross of Jesus in servitude (cf. Luke 23:26).

We have a choice to make, for we may either experience the blessings of Japheth or the curse of Canaan. The righteous seed has finally culminated in the coming of Messiah, of the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), of the seed of Shem (Genesis 9:26) and of Abram (12:2-3). In Christ, by submission to Him and faith in Him as God’s provision of forgiveness and righteousness for sinners, we may experience the blessing of Japheth. By despising Christ and rejecting Him—by persisting in our sins, we come under the curse of Canaan for all eternity.

May God enable you to find salvation and blessing in Christ Jesus.

100 Some have accused Ham of committing a homosexual act with Noah, while he was in his drunken stupor. Our text says that Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” (verse 22). While the expression ‘to uncover the nakedness of another’ can be a euphemism for sexual relations (cf. Leviticus 18:6ff), this is not the language employed in our text. Furthermore, there is a contrast in our passage between Ham, who saw the nakedness of Noah, and Shem and Japheth, who did not (Genesis 9:23). The description of how they turned their faces so as not to see Noah in his condition strongly implies that seeing or not seeing was the essence of the situation. The suggestion that Ham saw Noah and his mother in the midst of sexual relations has the same weaknesses.

101 The expression “servant of servants” (verse 25) is similar to that of ‘Lord of Lords’ or ‘king of kings.’ It is an emphatic way to express an extreme either of sovereignty, or of servitude.

102 “Both the ancients and the moderns have explained this word in the sense of ‘make wide’ on the basis of Aramaic usage, . . . and this appears to be the correct interpretation.” U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), II, pp. 168-169.

103 Shem means ‘name’ and is likely a word play also.

104 This is the conclusion of Leupold, who writes, “But how about the Justice of this development of history? From our point of view most of the difficulties are already cleared away. We render ‘Cursed is Canaan’ not ‘be’ (A.V.); and ‘servant of servants shall he be,’ not in an optative sense may he be. The evil trait, displayed by Ham in this story, had, no doubt, been discerned by Noah as marking Canaan, the son, more distinctly. Cannan’s whole race will display it more than any of the races of the earth. To foretell that involves no injustice. The son is not punished for the iniquity of the father. His own unfortunate moral depravity, which he himself develops and retains, is foretold.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 350.

105 “The primal ancestor of these peoples was Hellen, who was descended from Prometheus, whose father was the titan, Iapetos (Japheth).” Allen Ross, The Table of the Nations (unpublished doctoral dissertation: Dallas Theological Seminary), 1976, p. 365, as quoting Neiman, “The Date and Circumstances of the Cursing of Canaan,” p. 126.

106 Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 362.

107 For a more detailed analysis, cf. Ross, pp. 371 ff.

108 Ross, p. 375.

109 Cassuto, II, p. 175.

110 William F. Albright, “Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands,” Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, 20th ed., p. 29, as quoted by Louis B. Hamada, Prophetic Implications of Noah’s Curse on Canaan (unpublished thesis: Dallas Theological Seminary, 1978), p. 24.

111 Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 372.
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11. The Unity of Unbelief (Genesis 11:1-9)


Posing for the camera of Playboy magazine cost a 26 year-old stewardess her job recently. The tragedy, as reported in the Dallas Morning News,112 was not her release, but in her reasons for her decision. She had learned that lung surgery was needed and the outcome might not be good. She decided to pose so that the world would remember her.

I admire this young woman’s honesty, but I am grieved by her decision. While most people are not so candid about their motives, the world is filled with people who desperately wish to be remembered. All of us are inclined to build monuments to ourselves in one way or another.

Men must face what has come to be referred to as the ‘mid-life syndrome.’ We reach those middle years when we begin to realize that most of what we intended to do has not yet been accomplished. And we can no longer deny the fact that the better part of life has been lived. Often at this crisis point men feverishly begin to build monuments by which they will be remembered.

This is why the account of Babel, found in Genesis chapter 11, is so important for us. It exposes the underlying cause for building monuments. Better yet, it gives us the cure and teaches us how to face the future with peace of heart.

The temptation is great to refer to this incident on the plain of Shiner as ‘the tower of Babel.’ While all that we have learned about this event may incline us to focus on the tower, it was not the primary evil, but only a symptom. Cassuto, in his commentary on Genesis, refused to title the section in the traditional way because he recognized the real villain.113 Once we appreciate the wisdom of Cassuto, we will arrive at the heart of the story, and its application to us today.

Conditions Prior to
the Confusion of Tongues

Verse one highlights a particular condition of mankind which is not in and of itself evil: “… and the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (Genesis 11:1). We would assume, since mankind came from a common ancestor, namely Noah, that all men spoke a common language.114 Moses began the account of the confusion of languages by drawing our attention to this fact.

Now there is nothing wrong with a common language. It is not evil, nor is it the cause of evil. Communication was greatly enhanced by it. It facilitated community life and was the foundation for unity. Potentially, a common language could have drawn men and women together in the worship and work of God. Practically, it was perverted to promote disobedience and unbelief. God’s gift of language, like other gifts of His grace, was misused. Sinful man cannot do anything but misappropriate God’s gifts of grace.

Our attention is thus drawn to the fact of a common knowledge, not because we would be unaware of it, but because it was the occasion for the evil that followed. Also, it was the condition which God changed in order to prevent this evil which men conspired to achieve.

The Intentions of Man

Man had migrated to the fertile plain in the land of Shinar and there settled down. “And it come about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shiner and settled there” (Genesis 11:2).

It would seem that the offspring of Noah had decided to trade in their tents for a townhouse.115 Yet in the prophecy of Noah we read, “May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant” (Genesis 9:27).

Leupold observes that the word “journeyed” in Genesis 11:2 literally meant ‘to pull up stakes.’116 Urban life has not been presented in a favorable light thus far in Genesis. Cain built a city and named it after his son Enoch (Genesis 4:17). God had said that he should live as a vagrant and a wanderer (4:12). Nimrod, a descendent of Ham, seemed to be an empire builder also (10:9-12). In fact, it is possible that Nimrod was the leader in the movement to settle in Shinar and build this city with its tower.117

Settling in the valley of Shinar was an act of disobedience. God had commanded men to spread out and fill the land, not to congregate in cities:

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.… And as for you, be fruitful and multiply; populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it’ (Genesis 9:1,7).

In verses 3 and 4 the intentions of man are spelled out:

And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:3,4).

Verse 3 informs us of the intensity of man’s intentions to build a city and a tower. A Palestinian Jew, especially one who had just come from Egypt, would expect any building project to employ stone and mortar. These materials were not plentiful and thus it was necessary to substitute fire-hardened brick for stone and tar for mortar.118

These men did not begin to build without counting the cost. They anticipated the obstacles and were determined to overcome them. The resolve of mankind to build the city despite the difficulties tells us of the intensity of this endeavor. Some have seen in verse 4 a strong religious flavor, as though men were trying to get to God by building a tower.

And they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth’ (Genesis 11:4).

I do not think such claims can be substantiated. It is hard to believe that Moses would have left such matters to mere inference. The expression, “will reach into heaven,” is not so much spiritual as it is special. It simply implies great height. Such is its connotation in other passages:

Where can we go up? Our brethren have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are bigger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified to heaven. And besides, we saw the sons of the Anakim there’ (Deuteronomy 1:28; cf. 9:1; Psalm 107:26).

No great emphasis is placed upon the tower. It is considered a part of the city. While the Mesopotamian ziggurats of later times were distinctly religious,119 no such indication is given in our text. The purpose for building the city and its imposing tower is best explained in the statement, “… and let us make for ourselves a name; … ” (verse 4).

Arrogance, rebellion, and pride seem to be the root of men’s activities here.120

As is often the case, we do not reveal our true motives until the very last. I think this is true in our text. The last statement of the people of ancient Babel is the key to our passage: “… lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (verse 4).

These people could not conceive of blessing and security coming as a result of dispersion, even though God commanded it. They felt most secure when they were living in close proximity. They saw the future as brighter when they could leave posterity a monument to their ingenuity and industry.121

While rebellion, pride, and unbelief are evident in the story, the underlying problem is one of fear. Richardson put his finger on this when he wrote:

The hatred of anonymity drives men to heroic feats of valour or long hours of drudgery; or it urges them to spectacular acts of shame or of unscrupulous self-preferment. In the worse forms it attempts to give the honour and the glory to themselves which properly belong to the name of God.122

These men of old must have known of God’s command and of His covenant. Otherwise why would they have feared being scattered? But all they had was a promise from God. Their hopes were on abstract words, nothing concrete, and so they placed their faith in bricks and tar.

The following verses record the response of God to man’s disobedience:

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. ‘Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city (Genesis 11:5-8).

As Cassuto has observed,123 this passage is an example of literary artistry. Man’s intentions are curbed by divine intervention.

Verses 5 and 6 have been disturbing to many because they may seem to diminish the sovereignty of God. There is the appearance that God has let a situation get nearly out of control before He was even aware of it. It looks as though one of the angels has informed God of the incident at Babel and God has hastily descended to investigate the matter. Any such conception has missed the point of the writer.

These verses are a beautifully fashioned satire on the folly of man’s activities. Men had commenced to build a city with a high tower that they thought would make a name for them. Moses is suggesting to us that man’s thoughts and efforts, no matter how lofty, are insignificant to God. While the top of the tower may, from the vantage point of earth, seem to pierce the clouds, to the infinite, almighty God it was a barely visible dot on the earth. It was as though God would have to stoop to view it.124 If God should have to ‘descend’ to scrutinize this city, it was due to the insignificance of it all, not God’s inability to keep up with His creation.

If verse 5 describes the investigation of God, verse 6 informs us of God’s appraisal of the situation.

And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them’ (Genesis 11:6).

The evil does not lie in the fact that all men spoke one language. This only provided the occasion for man’s sinfulness to express itself more easily. Yet it did suggest a means of reversing man’s plans.

The completion of this city would in no way threaten the rule of God. Obviously, it would violate the command of God for man to disperse and fill the earth. Verse 6 explains the impact which the success of man’s plans to build this city would have on man. Men would conclude that since they were able to build this city despite many obstacles, they could do anything they set their minds to. A bit of that mentality was evidenced when man first set foot on the moon. I recall that something like this was said: “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” When man’s ingenuity was successfully employed to overcome the many barriers to reaching the moon’s surface, man felt that no problem was beyond a human solution.

In the days of the offspring of Noah at Babel, men placed their confidence in bricks and mortar and the work of their hands. In our time we are just a bit more sophisticated. We trust in transistors, integrated circuits, and technology. We feel that if we can put a man on the moon, nothing can keep us from solving any problem.

It is this attitude of arrogant self-confidence and independence of God which God knew was inevitable if man succeeded. Because of this, God purposed to thwart man’s plans: “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).

What we see here is not so much a punishment being meted out as preventive measures being taken. The mechanics of the confusion of language can only be guessed at, but the outcome is evident. The project came to an abrupt halt, a monument to man’s sin.

Conditions After the Confusion of Tongues

That which man most feared had come to pass.

“Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whose earth” (Genesis 11:9).

The irony of this event is that what men most desired would have destroyed them, and what they most dreaded would prove to be a part of their deliverance.

At one time in history the name Babel (Bab-ili) meant in Babylonian “the gate of God.”125 By means of a play on words God changed its name to “confusion” (Balal).126


In this brief narrative we find some principles which are vital to true believers in any age.

(1) Man’s plans will never thwart God’s purposes. God had commanded mankind to “fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). Man preferred to cloister rather than to comply with God’s command to spread out. In spite of man’s greatest efforts, God’s purposes prevailed. My friend, men of every age have learned that God’s will cannot be resisted. You may be destroyed, but God will not be diverted from His purposes. Such was the conclusion to which Saul was forced:

And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew dialect, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads’ (Acts 26:14).

A friend of mine used to say, “Is that brick wall getting any softer, or is my head just getting bloodier and bloodier?”

No man can thwart the will of God. A life lived in resistance to the revealed Lord of God must end in frustration and failure. No one can succeed at resisting God.

(2) Unity is not the highest good, but purity and obedience to the Word of God. Ecumenism is the watch word of religion today, but it is a unity at the cost of truth. Some regard unity as a goal worthy of any sacrifice. God does not. In fact, the Israelites of old were soon to learn that the Canaanites, unlike the Egyptians (cf. Genesis 46:33-34), were eager to unite with the chosen people of God (cf. Genesis 34:8-10, Numbers 25:1ff.). Unity and peace must never be attained at the price of purity. God’s people are to be holy, even as He is holy (Leviticus 11:44f; I Peter 1:16).

True unity can only occur in Christ (John 17:21; cf. Ephesians 2:4-22). This unity is to be diligently preserved (Ephesians 4:3). But oneness in Christ results in division from those who reject Christ (Matthew 10:34-36). We must separate ourselves from those who deny the truth (II John 7-11; Jude 3). There can be no true unity with those who deny our God.

(3) The communication gap created in Genesis chapter 11 can only be bridged by Christ. The Old Testament prophets recognized the ongoing effect of Babel, and spoke of a day when it would be reversed:

‘For then I will give to the peoples purified lips, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord, to serve Him shoulder to shoulder. From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, My dispersed ones, will bring My offerings. In that day you will feel no shame because of all your deeds by which you have rebelled against Me; for then I will remove from your midst your proud, exulting ones, and you will never again be haughty on my holy mountain’ (Zephaniah 3:9-11).127

The phenomenon of tongues in Acts chapter two indicates the ‘first fruits’ of the renewal which is yet to be realized in full.

Frankly, I am deeply troubled at the ignorance of Christians today regarding the communication gap we experience in our relationships. The communication breakdown has its roots in Genesis chapter 11. Many wives silently agonize at the way their husbands fail to comprehend what they are trying to tell them, and at their failure to disclose their innermost feelings. While Christ is the answer to this dilemma, most of us fail to grasp the fact that it is a problem which threatens our relationships.

(4) Superficial relationships and artificial activity will inevitably miss the meaning of life. Someone has said that the definition of the ‘upper crust’ is, ‘a few crumbs with a little dough to hold them together.’ What is it that holds your life together? How tragic that the Babylonians of old found their security in a city and put their hope in fired bricks and tar.

What frightens me most is that the church has often fallen into the same trap as the world. We find ourselves creating programs to keep people busy and to give them the false security of involvement and activity. While programs are not antithetical to life, they are often a substitute for living faith and devotion and power. In many churches, God could have died 50 years ago and we would still not know it.

I cannot but help think of the church building program as I have considered the tower of Babel. How often we enter into a building program, thinking that it will give people a cause to get excited about, and that a lovely building will somehow attract new members.

God help us to avoid the artificiality of Babel. It is a counterfeit religion that has no life and no ultimate worth.

(5) The Word of God, and not the works of our hands, is the only thing worthy of our faith. The men of Babel began to look at work as the cure rather than the curse. They believed that the work of their hands could assure them of some kind of immortality beyond the grave. Here, I suspect, is the driving force behind the workaholic. He cannot ever rest because he (or she) is never certain that a large enough monument has been built.

Is this not that of which the Psalmist has written?

Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they shall not be ashamed, when they speak with their enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:1-5).

Did you notice the reference in verse two to the ‘bread of painful labors’? Surely it is a reflection of the curse in Genesis chapter three, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, … ” (Genesis 3:19a).

The Psalmist knew that work could never give man the rest and peace for which he toiled, but only trusting in that which God would provide. God’s blessing would come through the children which God would give in rest and intimate fellowship (Psalm 127:3-5). Is this not what the people of Babylon needed to understand?

Human endeavor is never satisfying, never fulfilling. Only work which is done for the Lord and in His strength brings lasting satisfaction.

The woman at the well in John chapter 4 sought water to quench her thirst. Jesus offered that which would forever satisfy:

Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life’ (John 4:13-14).

That ‘meat’ which was greater than mere food was to do the will of the Father:

In the meanwhile the disciples were requesting Him, saying ‘Rabbi, eat.’ But He said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you did not know about.’ The disciples therefore were saying to one another, ‘No one brought Him any thing to eat, did he?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work’ (John 4:31-34).

Have you found the satisfaction and rest which God has provided in Jesus Christ? It alone can satisfy the longings of man.

This “rest” is that for which Lamech, the father of Noah, looked for in the seed of his son:

Now he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one shall give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed’ (Genesis 5:29).

God has now provided a salvation for men in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary. He has assured men that to as many as believe upon Him—that trust Him for forgiveness of sins and eternal life—they shall be saved. That is enough. And that is the only basis for hope beyond the grave.

(6) Much of what man does on this earth is a monument to his insecurity. This passage has impressed me more than ever before because of the intense insecurity of man. I have often felt that the root of man’s sinful actions is willful rebellion or active aggression against God. Man does rebel against God, but the root of much of his disobedience is based upon his insecurity.

Behind the facade of achievement, accomplishment, bravado and self-assurance is the haunting spectra of leaving this life with no certainty of what is to follow. That, in my estimation, is the real reason for the building of the city of Babel and its tower. The people of that day were willing to make nearly any sacrifice to have some hope of immortality. They saw this in the name they could make for themselves.

Have you ever stopped to think about the role insecurity may play in the things you devote time and energy to? Christians who do not fathom the grace of God and His sovereign control are plagued by the insecurity of supposing that God’s work and will is conditioned by our faithfulness, rather than by His. Our insecurity may be the motive for much of our Christian service. If only we can do more for the Lord, we shall feel more secure and certain of His blessing. Such activity is little different than that of those who lived on the plain of Shinar.

We preachers must learn a very important lesson here also. We want to see results from our work. We may be insecure in what God has called us to do. Because of our own insecurity, we may urge others to work harder in Christian activity, and we may motivate this activity by playing upon the wrong motives of guilt and insecurity. These motives are always wrong reasons for Christian service. Service should be based upon gratitude, not guilt or fear.

As Paul has written, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies … ” (Romans 12:1a).

The problems we have discussed are complex, but the solution is simple. We should do what the children of Noah should have done, simply trust and obey. This is the way to have blessing in Jesus.

112 “People,” The Dallas Morning News, p. 3a, April 23, 1980.

113 I am grateful to U. Cassuto, who has put the tower of Babel in its proper perspective when he wrote,

“The tower is only a detail in the episode--part of the gigantic city that men sought to build in order to achieve their goal. Not without reason, therefore, does the end of the story refer only to the suspension of the building of the city but not of the construction of the tower (v. 8: and they left off building the city). Hence I did not put at the head of this narrative the usual title ‘The Tower of Babel’ or ‘The building of the Tower of Babel’; I used instead the expression customarily employed in Jewish Literature, ‘The Story of the Generation of Division,’ which best fits the intention and the content of the text.” U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), II, p. 226.

114 “Literally, the text reads ‘one words,’ i.e., the words were common to all, indicating that all shared them, supporting the translation ‘one vocabulary.’ Syntax (Language) and vocabulary were a single comprehensible wholly understood by all. Communication was swift, and ideas and plans were quickly propagated.” Harold G Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p, 131.

115 “There was also a natural nomadic element, for they were journeying from place to place. The conditions of agricultural life would doubtless necessitate a great deal of movement. In their journeyings they at last arrived at the land of Shinar, the plain in which Babylon was afterwards situated (chap. x. 10). The fertility of this plain would be of special value, and we are not surprised to read that ‘they dwelt there.”’ W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p 108.

116 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p 384.

117 “Again, as this event in all probability took place in the lifetime of Nimrod, the first individual who is recorded to have aspired to dominion over his fellow-men, and as it is express by said of him that ‘the beginning of his kingdom was Babel,’ nothing is more natural than to suppose that he was the Leader in this daring enterprise, and that it was in great measure a scheme of his for obtaining the mastery of the world.” George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., 1976, Reprint), p. 183.

118 “Here Moses inserts an explanatory statement before he lets us hear the rest of their purpose by dwelling upon the unique nature of the materials used--unique for such as are in rocky Palestine with its innumerable stones. For the builders purpose to use their burnt brick in place of stone and bitumen for mortar. Abundant remains of similar structures display how very accurate the author is in his statement. For more substantial buildings not the sun-dried but the kiln-dried bricks were used, and bitumen sealed the joints. Such structures cohere very firmly to this present day. To a non-Babylonian such a mode of building would seem strange as well as particularly worthy of notice.” Leupold, Genesis, I, pp. 385-386.

119 “These ziggurats, over thirty of which are known to exist, were composed of successively smaller stages or stories of sun dried or burnt brick, on top of which was constructed a temple.” Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 46.

120 “In Genesis 9:1 God specifically told Noah and his sons, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish (literally, ‘fill’) the earth.’ In direct disobedience, their descendants were concerned lest they be scattered over the earth and in pride sought to build a city and tower as a rallying point and to symbolize or memorialize their greatness. This God could not condone. Genesis does not say that they intended to enter heaven by means of this tower or that they intended to use it for worship purposes. The Hebrew simply calls it a mighty (‘tower’), which could be used for defense or a number of other purposes, and there is no indication that the builders planned to erect a temple on it so that the structure could serve as a ‘link between earth and heaven’ as the ziggurats did. Moreover, the Genesis narrative implies that such towers had not been built before and that this would therefore be something unique in the experience of man.” Ibid., pp. 46-47.

121 “The primeval history reaches its fruitless climax as man, conscious of new abilities, prepares to glorify and fortify himself by collective effort. The elements of the story are timelessly characteristic of the spirit of the world. The project is typically grandiose; men describe it excitedly to one another as if it were the ultimate achievement--very much as modern man glories in his space projects. At the same time they betray their insecurity as they crowd together to preserve their identity and control their fortunes (4b).” Derek Kidner, Genesis, An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 109.

122 Alan Richardson, Genesis 1-11, Introduction and Commentary (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1953), p. 128, as quoted by Allen Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis (Unpublished Doctor’s Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976), pp. 292-293.

123 In this short narrative we have a fine example of biblical literary art. It comprises two paragraphs, of almost equal size, that constitute an antithetic parallel to each other in form and content. The first begins with a reference to the situation that existed at the outset (v. i), and thereafter describes what men proceeded to do (vv. 2-4). The second recounts what the Lord did (vv. 5-8), and concludes with a reference to the position created at the end of the episode (v. 9).” Cassuto, Genesis, II, pp. 231-232.

124 “As I have explained in the introduction, there is a satiric allusion here: they imagined that the top of their tower would reach the heavens, but in God’s sight their gigantic structure was only the work of pigmies, a terrestrial not a celestial enterprise, and if He that dwells in heaven wished to take a close took at it, He had to descend from heaven to earth.” Ibid., pp. 244-245.

“‘Yahweh must draw near, not because he is nearsighted, but because he dwells at such tremendous height and their work is so tiny. God’s movement must therefore be understood as a remarkable satire on man’s doing.”’ This is a quote by Proksch, cited by Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972), p. 149.

125 Ross, p. 299.

126 ‘‘Babel (Babylon) called itself Bab-ili, ‘gate of God’ (which may have been a flattering reinterpretation of its original meaning); but by a play of words Scripture super-imposes the truer label balal (‘he confused’).” Kidner, Genesis, p. 110.

127 Ross understands the ‘pure lip’ of verse 9 to refer to one common language: “Spoken of in the singular, the ‘pure lip’ must mean the language barriers will be broken down to make one universal tongue. The second idea in the expression means that their speech will be cleansed.” Ross, p. 258. fn. 1. Unfortunately the NASB renders the expression as a plural, “purified lips.”
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12. The Call of Abram (Genesis 11:31-12:9)


Chapter 12 begins a new division in the book of Genesis. The first eleven chapters have often been called ‘primeval history.’ The last chapters are known as ‘patriarchal history.’ While the effect of man’s sin has become increasingly widespread, the fulfillment of the promise of God in Genesis 3:15 has become more selective. The Redeemer was to come from the seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15), then from the descendants of Seth, then Noah, and now Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3).

Theologically, Genesis chapter 12 is one of the key Old Testament passages, for it contains what has been called the Abrahamic Covenant. This covenant is the thread which ties the rest of the Old Testament together. It is critical to a correct understanding of Bible prophecy.

In Genesis chapter 12 we come not only to a new division and an important theological covenant, but most of all to a great and godly man—Abraham. Nearly one-fourth of the book of Genesis is devoted to this man’s life. Over 40 Old Testament references are made to Abraham. It is of interest to note that Islam holds Abram second in importance to Mohammed, with the Koran referring to Abraham 188 times.128

The New Testament in no way diminishes the significance of the life and character of Abraham. There are nearly 75 references to him in the New Testament. Paul chose Abraham as the finest example of a man who is justified before God by faith apart from works (Romans 4). James referred to Abraham as a man who demonstrated his faith to men by his works (James 2:21-23). The writer to the Hebrews pointed to Abraham as an illustration of a man who walked by faith, devoting more space to him than any other individual in chapter eleven (Hebrews 11:8-19). In Galatians chapter 3 Paul wrote that Christians are the ‘sons of Abraham’ by faith, and therefore, rightful heirs to the blessings promised him (Galatians 3:7,9).

As we turn our attention to Genesis chapter 12 let us do so with an eye to Abraham as an example of the walk of faith. In particular, I want to underscore the process which God employed to strengthen Abram’s faith and make him the godly man he became. Most of the errors so popular in Christian circles concerning the nature of the life of faith can be corrected by a study of the life of Abraham.

The Circumstances
Surrounding the Call of Abram
(Joshua 24:2-3; Acts 7:2-5)

Moses did not give us all the background needed to properly grasp the significance of the call of Abram, but it has been recorded for us in the Bible. Stephen clarifies the time that Abram was first called of God. It was not in Haran, as a casual reading of Genesis 12 might incline us to believe, but in Ur. As Stephen stood before his unbelieving Jewish brethren, he recounted the history of God’s chosen people, beginning with the call of Abraham:

And he said, ‘Hear me, brethren and fathers! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran and said to him, “Depart from your country and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you”’ (Acts 7:2-3).

While not all Bible students agree on the location of Ur,129 most agree that it is the Ur of southern Mesopotamia, on what used to be the coast of the Persian Gulf. The site of the great city was first discovered in 1854, and has since that time been excavated, revealing much about life in the times of Abram.130 While the actual period that Abram lived in Ur may be a matter of discussion, we can say with certainty that Ur was justified in its boast of being a highly developed civilization. There are ample evidences of elaborate wealth, skilled craftsmanship, and advanced technology and science.131 All of this tells us something of the city which Abram was commanded to leave. In the words of Vos,

Regardless of when Abraham left Ur, he turned his back on a great metropolis, setting out by faith for a land about which he knew little or nothing and which could probably offer him little from a standpoint of material benefits.132

If the city which Abram was told to leave was great, the home he left behind seems to have been less than godly. I would have assumed that Terah was a God-fearing man, who brought up his son, Abram, to believe in only one God, unlike the people of his day, but this was not so. Joshua gives us helpful insight into the character of Terah in his farewell speech at the end of his life:

And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods”’ (Joshua 24:2).

So far as we can tell, then, Terah was an idolater, like those of his days. No wonder God commanded Abram to leave his father’s house (Genesis 12:1)!

Abram’s age was not a factor in favor of leaving Ur for some unknown land either. Moses tells us that Abram was 75 when he entered the land of Canaan. Think of it. Abram would have been on social security for over ten years. The ‘mid-life crisis’ would have been past history for him. Rather than thinking of a new land and a new life, most of us would have been thinking in terms of a rocking chair and a rest home.

We are not inclined to be impressed with Abram’s age because of the length of men’s lives in olden times, but Genesis chapter 11 informs us that man’s longevity was much greater in times past, than in Abram’s day. Abram died at the ripe old age of 175 (25:7-8), a much shorter time than Shem (11:10-11) or Arpachshad (11:12-13). One purpose of the genealogy of chapter 11 is that it informs us that men were living shorter lives, and having children younger. Abram was, in our vernacular, ‘no spring chicken’ when he left Haran for Canaan.

All of this should remind us of the objections and obstacles which must have been in the mind of Abram when the call of God came. He left Haran, not because it was the easiest thing to do, but because God intended for him to do it. Having said this, I do not wish to glorify Abram’s faith either, for as we shall see, it was initially very weak. The obstacles were largely overcome by the initiative of God in the early stages of the life of Abram. This remains to be proven.

The Command of God

The call of Abram is recorded for us in Genesis 12:1: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.’”

A better rendering of the first sentence of this call is found in the King James Version and in the New International Version, both of which read, “The Lord had said to Abram, … ”

The difference is important. Without it we are inclined to think that the call of Abram came at Haran, rather than at Ur. But we know from Stephen’s words that the call came to Abram at Ur (Acts 7:2). The pluperfect tense (had said) is both grammatically legitimate and exegetically necessary. It tells us that verses 27-32 of chapter 11 are parenthetical,133 and not strictly in chronological order.

The command of God to Abram was in conjunction with an appearance of God.134 While Moses mentioned only an appearance of God after Abram was in the land (12:7), Stephen informs us that God appeared to Abram while in Ur (Acts 7:2). In the light of all the objections which might be raised by Abram, such an appearance should not be unusual. God also appeared to Moses at the time of his call (Exodus 3:2, etc.).

In one sense, the command of God to Abram was very specific. Abram was told in detail what he must leave behind. He must leave his country, his relatives, and his father’s house. God was going to make a new nation, not merely revise an existing one. Little of the culture, religion, or philosophy of the people of Ur was to be a part of what God planned to do with His people, Israel.

On the other hand, God’s command was deliberately vague. While what was to be left behind was crystal clear, what lay ahead was distressingly devoid of detail: “… to the land which I will show you.”

Abram did not even know where he would settle. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “… he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

The faith to which we are called is not faith in a plan, but faith in a person. Much more important than where he was, God was concerned with who he was, and in Whom he trusted. God is not nearly so concerned with geography as He is with godliness.

The relationship between the command of God to Abram in verse 1 and the incident at Babel in chapter 11 should not be overlooked. At Babel men chose to disregard the command of God to disperse and populate the earth. They strove to find security and renown by banding together and building a great city (11:3-4). They sought blessing in the product of their own labors, rather than in the promise of God.

The command of God to Abram is, in effect, a reversal of what man attempted at Babel. Abram was secure and comfortable in Ur, a great city. God called him to leave that city and to exchange his townhouse for a tent. God promised Abram a great name (what the people of Babel sought, 11:4) as a result of leaving Ur, leaving the security of his relatives, and trusting only in God. How unlike man’s ways are from God’s.

The Covenant with Abram

Technically, the covenant with Abram is not found in chapter 12, but in chapters 15 (verse 18) and 17 (verses 2,4,7,9,10,11,13,14,19,21) where the word covenant appears. It is there that the specific details of the covenant are spelled out. Here in chapter 12 the general features of the covenant are introduced.

Three major promises are contained in verses 2 and 3: a land; a seed; and a blessing. The land, as we have already said, is implied in verse 1. At the time of the call, Abram did not know where this land was. At Shechem, God promised to give ‘this land’ to Abram (12:7). It was not until chapter 15 that a full description of the land was given:

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: … ’ (Genesis 15:18).

This land never belonged to Abram in his lifetime, even as God had said (15:13-16). When Sarah died, he had to buy a portion of the land for a burial site (23:3ff.). Those who first read the book of Genesis were about to take possession of the land which was promised Abram. What a thrill that must have been for the people of Moses’ day to read this promise and realize that the time for possession had come.

The second promise of the Abrahamic Covenant was that of a great nation coming from Abram. We have already mentioned the significance of Psalm 127 in relation to the efforts of man at Babel. Real blessing does not come from toil and agonizing hours of labor, but from the fruit of intimacy, namely children. Abraham’s blessing was largely to be seen in his descendants. Here was the basis for the ‘great name’ that God would give to Abram.

This promise demanded faith on the part of Abram, for it was obvious that he was already aged, and that Sarai, his wife, was incapable of having children (11:30). It would be many years before Abram would fully grasp that this heir that God had promised would come from the union of he and Sarai.

The final promise was that of blessing—blessing for him, and blessing through him. Much of Abram’s blessing was to come in the form of his offspring, but there was also the blessing that would come in the form of the Messiah, who would bring salvation to God’s people. To this hope our Lord, the Messiah, spoke, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).

Beyond this, Abram was destined to become a blessing to men of every nation. Blessing would come through Abraham in several ways. Those who recognized the hand of God in Abram and his descendants would be blessed by contact with them. Pharaoh, for example, was blessed by exalting Joseph. Men of all nations would be blessed by the Scriptures which, to a great extent, came through the instrumentality of the Jewish people. Ultimately, the whole world was blessed by the coming of the Messiah, who came to save men of every nation, not just the Jews:

Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith that are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations shall be blessed in you.’ So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer (Galatians 3:7-9)

The Compliance of Abram
(11:31-32, 12:4-9)

I am greatly distressed by the glamorizing of heroes, especially by Christians. The giants of the faith seem to be sterling characters with no evident flaws, with machine-like discipline, and unfaltering faith. I do not find such people in the Bible. The heroes of the Bible are men with ‘like passions’ (James 5:17) and feet of clay. That is my kind of hero. I can identify with men and women like this. And, most important, I can find hope for a person like myself. Little wonder that men like Peter and not Paul, are our heroes, for we can see ourselves in them.

Abram was a man like you and me. Moses’ account of his initial steps of faith makes it evident that much was to be desired, and to be developed in him. God called him in Ur, but Abram did not leave his father’s house or his relatives. Now Abram did leave Ur and go to Haran, but it appears to me that this was only because his pagan father decided to leave Ur. There may well have been political or economic factors which made such a move expedient, apart from any spiritual considerations.

Much of Abram’s first moves were neither purposeful nor pious, but rather were a more passive response to external forces. God providentially led Terah to pull up roots at Ur and to move toward Canaan (11:31). For some reason, Terah and his family stopped short of Canaan, and remained in Haran. Since Abram was unwilling or unable to leave his father’s house, God took Abram’s father in death (11:32). Now Abram obeyed God by faith and entered into the land of Canaan, but only after considerable preparatory steps had been taken by God.

I am saying that Abram obeyed God in faith, but it was a very little faith, and a very late faith. But does such a claim contradict the words of Scripture? Is this inconsistent with the words of the writer to the Hebrews?

By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8).

At least two things must be said in response to this question. First, the emphasis of Hebrews 11 is on faith. The writer wished to stress here the positive aspects of the Christian’s walk, not his failures. Therefore, the failures are not mentioned. Secondly, consistent with this approach, the author does not stress the timing of Abram’s obedience. He simply wrote, “… Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out.” Let us remember that Abram did go to Canaan, just as Moses went to Egypt, but not without considerable pressure from God.

We should not find this discouraging, but consistent with our own reluctance to put our future on the line in active, aggressive, unquestioning faith. Abraham was a man of great faith—after years of testing by God. But at the point of Abram’s call, he was a man whose faith was meager; real, but meager. And if we are honest with ourselves, that is just about where most of us are. In our best moments, our faith is vibrant and vital, but in the moments of testing, it is weak and wanting.

Once in the land of Canaan, the route taken by Abram is noteworthy. It should first of all be said that it was the route we would have expected him to have taken if he were going in that direction. A look at a map of the ancient world of patriarchal times would indicate that Abram traveled the well-trodden roads of his day.135 This route was that commonly traveled by those who engaged in the commerce of those days.

This I believe to be a significant observation, for many Christians seem to feel that God’s way is the way of the bizarre and the unusual. They do not expect God to lead them in a normal, predictable fashion. The lesson we may need to learn is this: very often the way God would have us go is the most sensible way that we would have chosen anyhow. It is only when God wishes us to depart from the expected that we should look for guidance that is spectacular or unusual.

Cassuto has suggested that the places mentioned (Shechem, Bethel, the Negev) are significant. He believes that the land is thus divided into three regions: one extending from the northern border to Shechem, the second from Shechem as far as Bethel, and the third from Bethel to the southern boundary.136

Jacob, after his return from Paddan-aram, came first to Shechem (33:18). Later he was instructed to go up to Bethel (35:1; cf. verse 6). At both Shechem and Bethel he built altars, like Abram, his grandfather (33:20; 35:7).

When Israel went into the land of Canaan, to possess it under Joshua, these same key cities were captured:

So Joshua sent them away, and they went to the place of ambush and remained between Bethel and Ai, on the west side of Ai; … (Joshua 8:9).

Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30).

Cassuto concludes that Abram’s journey unknowingly outlined the territory which would belong to Israel, and that the places he stopped symbolically forecast the future conquest of the land.137 In an additional comment, Cassuto adds the fact that these places were also religious centers of Canaanite worship.138 In effect, Abram’s actions of building altars and proclaiming the name of the Lord prophesied the coming time when true religious worship would overcome the pagan religion of the Canaanites. While the exact meaning of the expression, ‘called upon the name of the Lord’ may not be known, worship is surely described. It is difficult to believe that Abram’s public act of worship was not noted and viewed with particular interest by the Canaanites. Personally I believe that there is some kind of missionary function being carried out by Abram. As such, it would have been an act flowing from faith.

Characteristics of the Life of Faith

From these events in the early stages of Abram’s growth in grace several principles are found which depict the walk of faith in every age, and certainly in our own.

(1) Abram’s faith was commenced at the initiative of God. The sovereignty of God in salvation is beautifully illustrated in the call of Abram. Abram came from a pagan home. To our knowledge, he had no particular spiritual qualities which drew God to him. God, in His electing grace, chose Abram to follow Him, while he was going his own way. Abram, like Paul, and true believers of every age, would acknowledge that it was God Who sought him out and saved him, on the basis of divine grace.

(2) Abram’s spiritual life continued through the sovereign work of God. God is not only sovereign in salvation, but sovereign in the process of sanctification. Had Abram’s spiritual life depended solely upon his faithfulness, the story of Abram would have ended very quickly. Having called Abram, it was God Who providentially brought Abram to the point of leaving home and homeland and entering Canaan. Thank God our spiritual lives are ultimately dependent upon His faithfulness and not ours.

(3) The Christian’s walk is a pilgrimage. Abraham lived as a pilgrim, looking for the city of God:

“By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow-heirs of the some promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10).

Our permanent home is not to be found in this world, but in the one that is to come, in the presence of our Lord (cf. John 14:1-3). That is the message of the New Testament (cf. Ephesians 2:19, I Peter 1:17, 2:11).

The tent is thus the symbol of the pilgrim. He does not invest heavily in that which will not last. He dare not become too attached to that which he cannot take with him. In this life we cannot expect to fully possess what lies in the future, but only to survey it. The Christian life is not knowing exactly what the future holds, but knowing Him Who holds the future.

(4) The Christian walk is rooted in the reliability of the Word of God. When you stop to think about it, Abram had no concrete, tangible proof that a life of blessing lay ahead, outside of Ur, away from his family. All he had to rely upon was God, Who had revealed Himself to him.

In the final analysis, that is all anyone can have. There are, of course, evidences for the reasonableness of faith, but at the bottom line we simply must believe what God has said to us in His Word. If His ‘Word is not true and reliable, then we, of all men, are most miserable.’

But isn’t that enough? What more should we require than God’s Word? The other day I heard a preacher put it very pointedly. He quoted the shopworn saying, ‘God said it. I believe it. That settles it.’ The preacher said it could be said even shorter. ‘God said it, and that settles it, whether you believe it or not.’ I like that. The Word of God is sufficient for man’s faith.

God has said that all men are sinners, deserving of, and destined to eternal punishment. God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, the One Abram looked for in the future, to die on the cross to suffer the penalty for man’s sin. He alone offers man the righteousness necessary for eternal life. God said it. Do you believe it?

(5) The Christian walk is simply doing what God has told us to do and believing that He is leading us as we do so. God told Abram to leave without knowing where the path of obedience would lead, but believing that God was leading as he went. Do not expect that God will indicate each turn in the road with a clearly marked sign. Do what God tells you to do in the most sensible way you know how. Faith is not developed by living life by some kind of map, but by using God’s Word as a compass, pointing us in the right direction, but challenging us to walk by faith and not by sight.

As Abram went from place to place, the will of God must have seemed like a riddle. But as we look back upon it, we can see that God was leading all the way. No stop along the path was irrelevant or without purpose. Such will be the case as we can look back upon our lives from the vantage point of time.

(6) The Christian walk is a process of growth in grace. We often read of Abraham, the man of faith, supposing that he was always that kind of man. I would hope that our study of the initial period of his life indicates otherwise. How long have you been a Christian, my friend? One year? Five years? Twenty years? Do you realize that it was probably years from the time Abram was called in Ur until he ended up in Canaan. Do you know that after Abram entered the land of Canaan it was another 25 years until he had his son, Isaac? Can you fathom the fact that after leaving Haran for Canaan, God worked in Abram’s life for one hundred years? Christian faith grows. It grows through time and through testing. Such was true in Abram’s 1ife.139 Such is the case with every believer.

May God enable us to grow in grace as we walk the path which He has ordained, and as we continue to study the growth of the faith of Abram over many years.

128 S. Schultz, “Abraham,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), I, p. 26.

129 Cyrus Gordon has suggested that the true Ur of Genesis 11:31 is to be found in northern Mesopotamia, probably northeast of Haran. Gordon’s view is discussed, but rejected by Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), pp. 63-64. Gordon’s view is held by Harold G. Stiflers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 133-134.

130 Cf. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology, pp. 58-64.

131 “The city of Ur on the lower Euphrates River was a large population center, and has yielded extensive information in the royal tombs which were excavated under the direction of Sir Leonard Wooley and the sponsorship of the British Museum and the museum of Pennsylvania University. Although no direct evidence of Abraham’s residence is available, it is significant that the city of Ur reflects a long history preceding Abraham’s time, possessing an elaborate system of writing, educational facilities, mathematical calculations, business and religious records, and art. This points to the fact that Ur may have been one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Tigris-Euphrates area when Abraham emigrated northward to Haran.” Schultz, “Abraham,” ZPEB, I, p. 22.

132 Vos, p. 63.

133 “Although it may appear from a superficial reading of the account in Genesis (11:31-12:1) that God called Abraham while in Haran, thereby contradicting Stephen’s account that God called Abraham in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, the two accounts can be harmonized by noting that Genesis 11:27-32 is a parenthetical account of Terah introduced by a waw disjunctive, and that Genesis 12:1, introduced by a waw consecutive, carries on the main narrative which was discontinued in Gen. 11:26.” Bruce Waltke, Unpublished Class Notes, Dallas Theological Seminary, pp. 14-15.

134 Cassuto, the great Jewish scholar disagrees. He said in his comments on Genesis 12:7,

“Outside the Land, it was given to Abraham only to hear the Divine voice (v. 1); but here, in the land destined to be specifically dedicated to the service of the Lord, he was also vouchsafed the privilege of a Divine vision.” U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), II, p. 328. We must remember that Cassuto, as a Jew, did not regard the New Testament to be authoritative. Thus, he seems to have rejected Stephen’s words flatly.

135 Haran, for example, in Assyrian (harranu) meant ‘main road.’ Waltke, class notes, p. 14.

136 Cassuto, Genesis, II, p. 304.

137 “Now we can understand why the Torah stressed, in all their detail, Abram’s journeys on entering the land of Canaan, at first as far as Schechem, and subsequently up to Ai-Bethel. Scripture intended to present us here, through the symbolic conquest of Abram, with a kind of forecast of what would happen to his descendants later.” Cassuto, Genesis, II, pp. 305-306.

138 Ibid, p. 306.

139 “. . . Abram’s early history is partly that of his gradual disentanglement from country, kindred and father’s house, a process not completed until the end of chapter 13.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 113.

“Abram’s life is a growth in faith developed under delayed fulfillment of divine promises. He is promised a seed and when that seed is delayed, he must somehow see meaning in that delay and learn faith in God. When he is promised a land, and when that land is not given, he must look beyond the promise to its Maker so that he may understand. When he is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, he must obey with a willing heart of love, yet somehow see through to balance the command with the promise of the seed of a nation and leave the outcome to God and to find in God all sufficiency. Through all of his experiences he must come to see God as the origin of all that will endure.” Stagers, Genesis, p . 135.
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13. When Faith Fails,... (Genesis 12:10-13:41)


I have entitled this message “When Faith Fails,…” but I wonder if most Christians really believe that their faith can fail. A little thought should remove any doubts. What is worry, but a failure of faith? Worry estimates circumstances from the perspective of the person who faces the future apart from believing in a sovereign God Who is also a loving Father.

Worry’s bedfellow, fear, is also a failure of faith. Worry finds its concern in the distant and often unlikely future. Fear faces the problem eyeball to eyeball. The disciples were not worried on the storm-tossed waves of Galilee; they were scared to death. And our Lord rebuked them by unveiling the failure of their faith:

And He said to them, ‘Why are you so timid? How is that that you have no faith?’ (Mark 4:40).

Faith does fail; at least, my faith does. So what happens when it does? Do I lose my salvation? Does God’s work in my life come to a screeching halt, waiting for my faith to return? The incident in Abram’s life described in Genesis 12:10-13:4 gives us an encouraging word, and one that is desperately needed by those whose faith will fail.

Abram Faces a Famine

True faith in God is a faith that grows. In Genesis, and in God’s program for men today, faith grows as it is tested. For Abram, the first test was that of a famine.

Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land (Genesis 12:10).

I suspect that Abram, as an immature saint, had no idea that suffering and trials were a part of God’s curriculum in the school of faith. While Abram believed in God, he knew little of Him. He may have thought that the God Who called him was not able to control nature. In the pagan pantheon, the ‘gods’ had various limited powers. Perhaps his ‘god’ was not one to be bothered with matters like rain or crops. It never seemed to occur to Abram that God was not only greater than the famine, but the giver of it, as a test of faith.

Egypt seemed to be the logical solution. After all, God had sent Abram forth “not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Perhaps God wished him to continue southward on into Egypt. Another factor was that Egypt was less susceptible to famines. Egypt was much like Ur. Each was blessed by a great river system which allowed for irrigation. Both lands were much less dependent upon rain than was the land of Canaan.

For the land, into which you are entering to possess it, is not like the land of Egypt from which you come, where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden. But the land into which you are about to cross to possess it, a land of hills and valleys, drinks water from the rain of heaven, a land for which the Lord your God cares; the eyes of the Lord your God are always on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year (Deuteronomy 11:10-12).

Farming in Canaan was much more a matter of faith than in Ur or Egypt.

Nowhere is Abram directly condemned for his decision to go down to Egypt, but later developments make it clear that his actions did not stem from faith.140 Abram did not consult God, but acted independently. No altars were built in Egypt to our knowledge, nor are we told that Abram ever called on the name of the Lord there. His request of Sarai also reflects his spiritual condition. It would thus be safe to say that Abram’s faith failed in the face of that famine.

Abram Faces the Future

It would seem that Abram made his decision to go to Egypt without considering the consequences. Just outside the border of Egypt Abram began to contemplate the dangers which lay ahead.

Sarai was a very beautiful woman,141 and there was good reason to fear the fate of a foreigner whose wife was so attractive.142 The husband was easily expendable in such circumstances. Abram thus appealed to his wife to accept his solution to this problem of his safety. He proposed that Sarai pose as his sister, so that he would not be killed.

Much has been written concerning Abram’s request. Some have thought that Abram was willing to see his wife married off to an Egyptian for his safety, as well as the dowry it would bring him. This, I believe, goes too far. More likely is the explanation of Cassuto,143 who suggests that Abram asked his wife to pose as his (eligible) sister so that when the men of the land asked for her hand, he could stall for sufficient time for them to leave the land.

It really was an ingenious plan. One of the local men would come to Abram to ask for his sister’s hand in marriage. Abram would consent but insist upon a long engagement (long enough for the famine to end). During this time Sarai would remain at Abram’s home where their marriage could secretly continue and the safety of Abram was assured. It seemed that the benefits were great and the liabilities of such a scheme were minimal.

Such a plan was evil for several reasons. First of all, it tended to ignore the presence and power of God in Abram’s life. God had promised the ends, but seemingly He was unable to provide the means. He promised a land, a seed, and a blessing. Now it seemed as though Abram was left to his own devices to procure them.

One must wonder if there were traces of the pagan religion of the Mesopatomians underlying Abram’s actions. Did Abram suppose, like the pagans, that each nation had its own god? Once out of the land God had promised Abram, was his God no longer able to provide for him and protect him? Such thoughts would enter the pagan mind.

Abram’s plan was wrong because it jeopardized the purity of his wife and the promise of God. God had promised to make of Abram a great nation. From Abram a great blessing to all nations, the Messiah, would come. Now Abram was willing to run the risk of another man taking Sarai as his wife. How, then, could she be the mother of Abram’s seed?

Abram was wrong as well because he looked to his wife to bring him blessing when God had promised to bring a blessing to others through Abram: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:2-3).

Abram was clinging to his wife’s petticoat for protection and blessing, rather than to the promises of God.144

Finally, Abram’s plan was wrong because his fears were hypothetical and his ethics were situational. Look carefully at Abram’s fears—they were all future. He had not yet entered the land (12:11), and what he feared was all stated in terms of the future (12:12-13).

Here is a clear-cut case of situational ethics. Situation ethics first of all poses a hypothetical problem which has no alternatives except ones that are morally unacceptable. The lesser of the evils is then justified in the light of the circumstances.

Abram was not wrong in considering the possibility that someone would appreciate his wife as beautiful and desire her for a wife. It was not even wrong to suppose that someone might even kill him to marry her. Abram was wrong to assume that this would happen and that the only way to prevent it was to lie. Nowhere is the promise and the protection of God considered. Sinful deception is therefore begun before any real danger is ever experienced.

Abram’s Fears are Fulfilled

Someone is sure to protest: “But Abram’s fears were not hypothetical. It happened just as Abram had feared.” Not really! Abram was not the victim of what he feared; he was the cause of what came to pass. Abram’s fear of the future, and his faithless plan of action actually caused the event that followed. Much of what we fear is self-fulfilled.

It is true that Sarai was noted as a beautiful woman and this was reported to Pharaoh. But what was most crucial in what followed was the claim from both Abram and Sarai that she was his sister, and therefore eligible for marriage. While we can only conjecture as to Pharaoh’s action, if the truth were known, he felt fully justified in taking the sister of Abram into his harem.

God worked in Abram’s life in a remarkable way. Abram supposed that the possibilities of escape from the dangers in Egypt were only as numerous as those he had considered. Abram made his decision on the assumption that he could foresee the outcome of his actions. God taught Abram the painful lesson that the possibilities for the future are more numerous than we can predict. And so Abram is faced with a dilemma that he never considered.

It was all well thought out and neatly planned. Sarai would pose as his sister, and Abram would put off any marriage until the famine was over and they were gone. But Abram’s plan considered only the men of Egypt: “and it will come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife; and they will kill me, but they will let you live” (Genesis 12:12).

Never had it entered Abram’s mind that Pharaoh might be interested in Sarai. While Abram could put off the plans of others, Pharaoh would not take no for an answer. He took her into his palace, awaiting the time of the consummation of the union.

There is no evidence of a physical relationship between Pharaoh and Sarai. While the preparation period would normally have been at the home of Abram, in this case it would be at the palace. Sarai would likely undergo a relatively long period of preparation for her presentation to Pharaoh. Such was the custom in those days:

Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women—for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women—the young lady would go in to the king in his way: anything that she desired was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go in and in the morning she would return to the second harem, to the custody of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name (Esther 2:12-14).

Can you imagine the lonely, agonizing nights Abram must have spent, wondering what was going on in the palace? Abram had asked Sarai to lie so that it would go well with him (verse 13). And it did go well. Pharaoh sent many gifts to Abram and treated him royally. The only thing which kept Abram from enjoying his treatment was the realization of what it meant. Pharaoh was giving these things to Abram as a dowry. It did go well with Abram, but without Sarai, his wife. Prosperity is never a blessing without the peace which comes from being right with God.

Divine Deliverance and Royal Rebuke

Significantly, God had not yet been mentioned in this event until verse 17. Abram was allowed to fail and to flounder until his situation was seemingly hopeless. We are not told that he cried to God for help.

Without warning, God intervened in the life of Abram. Pharaoh and his household are struck by some kind of plague. Its symptoms may have been such as to suggest that the nature of the offense was sexually related. We are given no details here of the plague, nor of how its meaning was discerned.145

Abram was confronted by Pharaoh and roundly rebuked. Abram had no excuse or explanation. So far as we are told, he did not utter a word in his defense. No doubt this was the wise thing to do in the light of Abram’s offense. Pharaoh was not one to be challenged or angered unnecessarily.

The irony of the situation is obvious. Here is a pagan correcting a prophet (cf. 20:7). It was a royal rebuke that Abram would painfully remember. How sad, however, that Abram could not speak, for this no doubt hindered any testimony to his faith in the living God Who had called him. The Christian’s conduct does greatly affect his credibility.

Abram’s Restoration

How different reality was from the faithless reasonings of Abram. While in Egypt, Sarai’s purity was protected and Abram’s life was preserved. More than this, all of his possessions were kept intact. And to top it off, Abram and those with him were escorted back to the land of Canaan.

And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him. So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, he and his wife and all that belonged to him; and Lot with him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold (Genesis 12:20-13:2).

How foolish Abram’s fears must have appeared in the light of history. In order to avoid a famine, Abram was forced to face a Pharaoh. The might of Egypt was not employed against him, but was commanded to assure his safe arrival in Canaan. Indeed, Abram left Egypt even richer than he had come. But none of this was the result of Abram’s faithless and dishonest actions. It was the product of divine grace and providential care.

Verses 3 and 4 recount the retracing of Abram’s steps in reverse order. First he came to the Negev, then finally to Bethel and Ai. And when he returned to the altar he had formerly built, he once again offered sacrifices and called upon the name of the Lord.


Cassuto stresses the fact that Abram’s sojourn strikingly parallels Israel’s sojourn of the future.146 While the occasion for Israel’s presence in Egypt may not have been noble, God’s protection was provided there and they were eventually brought out with great spoils.

Famines would continue to be a part of the life of God’s people in the land to which they were going. But they must learn that famines come from God as a test of faith. If the people of God wish not to face famine, they must face Pharaoh. No matter what circumstance we may be in God is greater than any famine or any Pharaoh. The purity of God’s people must never be jeopardized, for in those days the Messiah was yet to appear for the salvation of His people.

There are many principles in this passage which should greatly strengthen the believer of any age. We shall suggest several.

(1) When God promises the ‘ends,’ He also provides the means. Abram believed God would give him a land, a seed, and a blessing. But in his time of faithlessness he supposed that God did not provide the means. God always provides for what He promises. There is a secular song which is entitled “Workin’ Like the Devil, Servin’ the Lord.” Many Christians seem to believe it. That is not God’s way.

(2) Our faith fails because our God is too small. We know that Abram’s faith failed. We also have seen that this failure did not frustrate God’s plan for his life. But we should be greatly helped to understand why Abram’s faith failed. I think the answer is obvious: Abram’s faith failed because His ‘god’ was too small.

As you know, J. B. Phillips some years ago wrote a book entitled, Your God is Too Small. Personally, I believe that Phillips put his finger on the reason why our faith is so fallible. The emphasis today falls largely upon our faith, rather than upon its object. As someone has said, I may have a little bit of faith in a 747 and be able to fly from here to Europe. On the other hand, I may have a great deal of faith in some homemade contraption which I have built in my garage. That will not get me across the Atlantic Ocean, no matter how great my faith in it may be.

Abram did not know His God well. And this was both normal and natural. He did not seem to think that his God was greater than famine, greater than Pharaoh. What Abram needed was not lessons in increasing his faith, but an increase in his faith by learning the greatness of his God. I believe much of our problem of little faith would be solved by knowing the God we serve more intimately. Abram did not have a Bible to help him, but we do.

(3) Situation ethics is wrong because it refuses to believe in the sovereignty of God. Situation ethics always supposes some kind of hypothetical circumstance in which there is no solution that is morally right. But God’s Word clearly tells us that God never puts us in a situation where we must sin:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it (I Corinthians 10:13).

The underlying error of situationalism is that it refuses to accept a sovereign God Who is able to deliver His people, regardless of their circumstances. Release from the slavery of Egypt under the cruel hand of Pharaoh was impossible, humanly speaking. When Israel stood trapped between the attacking armies and the Red Sea, there was no hope apparent. But the God we serve is a sovereign God. He is able to deliver His people from situations which appear to demand a sinful response.

(4) There are no short-cuts to godliness. Abram was taken aback by a famine, supposing that God’s way should not include adversity. But Abram was to learn that God designs the tests of life to develop our faith, not to destroy it.

Leaving Canaan for Egypt, in my estimation, was an attempt on Abram’s part to short-cut the test of the famine. As we have previously said, God forced Abram to face Pharaoh in place of the famine. But beyond this, we must see that, in the end, Abram had to go back to the place where he departed from the revealed word of God. Abram’s last act of faith and obedience was at the altar he built between Bethel and Ai. The end of Abram’s sojourn in Bypath Meadow was at this same altar between Bethel and Ai.

Have you ever considered side-stepping the path in which God has called you to walk? You may, of course, but the way will never be easy. The way of the transgressor is never easy (Proverbs 13:15). And, in the final analysis, we must resume wherever we left off. You cannot defeat God’s program and purposes for your life, my friend. At best, you can only delay them. And even this is a delusion, for in our failures many lessons of faith are learned.

(5) When our faith fails …God doesn’t. Our faith, like Abram’s will fail. But the blessed truth of God’s Word is that when our faith fails, God doesn’t.

Abram chose to doubt God’s presence and power in the face of a famine. His actions were those which showed he was willing to sacrifice principle for self-preservation. In spite of Abram’s failure of faith, God preserved him and even prospered him. Ultimately, God brought Abram to the place that he should have been.

This principle of God’s faithfulness in the face of our failure is one that applies to us today as well: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; for He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13).

Here is the beauty of divine election. God has ultimately chosen us to be His children. (This applies, of course, only to those who believe in Christ for eternal salvation.) Just as He saved us in spite of ourselves, so He also sanctifies us in spite of ourselves. Our eternal security, our salvation, our sanctification rests in His faithfulness, not ours. Here is great comfort for those whose faith will fail.

But someone is sure to point to the verse immediately before II Timothy 2:13: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us” (II Timothy 2:12).

There is a great deal of difference between doubt (faithlessness) and denial (rejection). Abram did not reject God; he simply failed to believe that God was able or willing to act in his behalf. No doubt Abram thought that God only “helped those who helped themselves.”

My understanding is that a true Christian cannot and will not ever renounce Jesus Christ as their Savior. But we will find times where our faith succumbs to doubt. Trials, tests or adversity may momentarily overwhelm our faith and cause us to doubt, and thus to act in violation to God’s revealed will. Such, I believe, was the case with Abram.

I do not mean for us to take this matter of failure lightly. When men do not purposefully act in accord with the revealed will of God, His purposes are not thwarted. God providentially acts to ensure the fulfillment of His purposes. While we may find ourselves precisely where God wanted us all along (providentially), we will never look back on our sin and unbelief with a smile on our face. Disobedience is never a delight to the Christian. Those long, lonely nights in the house of Abram were not worth the dowry of Pharaoh. Failure is always painful, but it never thwarts God’s purposes for his children.

May God use this truth to keep us from careless Christianity, as well as to comfort us when we do experience a failure of our faith.

140 “The Bible does not condemn his action but the results condemn it; so we are to learn by cause and effect relationships.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 143.

“Yet all the indications are that Abram did not stop to enquire, but went on his own initiative, taking everything into account but God. His craven and tortuous calculations are doubly revealing, both of the natural character of this spiritual giant (cf. Jas 5:l7a) and of the sudden transition that can be made from the plane of faith to that of fear.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p.116.

141 Abram, we are told, left Haran for Canaan at the age of 75 (12:4). We know from 17:17 that Sarai was ten years younger than Abram, making her about 65 at the time of this event. How could her beauty be so great at this age? Sarah died at the age of 127 (23:1). In her day, she was simply at the early stages of middle age. Her beauty was so striking she appeared even younger than she was. This satisfies the matter to my satisfaction, at least. Cf. Kidner, p. 117.

142 Stigers has an interesting footnote on this point: “PABH, p. 55 does state that a certain papyrus document states that the Pharoah had a husband killed that he might have the beautiful wife. Modern times do not have a ‘corner’ on such deeds!” Stigers, Genesis, p. 141, fn. 10.

143 U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1964), II, pp. 348-352.

144 A comment should also be made concerning Sarai’s participation in this scheme. I agree with Leupold, who has written, “Sarai’s acquiescence, however, seems to grow out of the idea that there actually is no other safe course to follow. She was as sadly deficient in faith as he himself on this occasion.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 425.

It is true that Peter commended Sarah, and used her as an example for Christian women, especially in the matter of submissiveness. But Peter did not refer to her actions in chapter 11, but rather to chapter 18 and her respectful reference to Abraham as her ‘lord’ at the time when she learned that she and Abram were to have a child of their own. Never is the Christian to sin because someone in higher authority has commanded it (cf. Daniel 3, 6; Acts 5:29).

145 The account of a similar repetition of this sin is found in chapter 20, and may shed some light on our text in chapter 12. Cf. especially 20:17-18.

146 Cassuto, Genesis, II, pcf. 334 ff.
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14. Lot Looks Out For Number One (Genesis 13:5-18)


This week, as I was preparing for this message, I was reminded of a recent best seller entitled, Looking Out For Number One. Thinking that this book might provide me with some illustrative material, I went to the library to check it out. All the volumes were missing from the shelf. I take it that many today are operating on this premise.

Lot never read any books on the subject, but he had it down to a science, as we can see from the account of Moses in Genesis chapter 13. Here, the time for Lot and Abram to separate had come. In their parting we find a contrast between these two saints in their motives and actions, a contrast which serves as a warning for those who think that God blesses those who look out for themselves at the expense of others.

A Relationship Is Strained

As they came out of Ur with Terah, Abram and Lot seemed inseparable, even when God had commanded Abram to leave his relatives behind.

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you;’ (Genesis 12:1).

But finally, the ties between the two were weakening. Essentially their separation was caused by three factors which are recorded in verses 5-7:

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents and the land could not sustain them while dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling then in the land (Genesis 13:5-7).

The first problem was the success of both men as keepers of flocks. Both Abram (13:2) and Lot (13:5) had prospered. Now their flocks and herds had become so large that they could no longer dwell together (13:6). This was especially true for nomadic tribesmen who must travel about looking continually for pasture for their sheep and cattle.

The second problem was the strife which seemed to be steadily growing between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot (13:7). Each man’s herdsmen sought water and the best pasture for the animals of their master. This competition inevitably led to conflict between the herdsmen of Lot and Abram.

It would probably not be far from the facts to suggest that some irritation already had become evident between Abram and Lot themselves. This may be implied by Abram’s words in verse 8. This also would be true to life. Whenever there is contention between followers, there most often will be strife between the leaders also.

If the first problem is the success of both Abram and Lot, and the second is the resulting strife, the third is the fact that the land where they sojourned was shared with others; namely the Canaanites and the Perrizites (13:7).

It is all too easy to forget that none of the land of Canaan as yet belonged to either Abram or Lot. When Abram and Lot separate in this chapter, they part paths; they do not divide real estate. They are both living in a land which is occupied by the Canaanites and Perrizites.

This seemingly incidental remark from the pen of Moses not only reminds us that Abram was a sojourner, dwelling in a land that would some day belong to his seed, but it may also suggest that the strife which existed between he and Lot was a poor testimony to those who looked on with interest. Further, Abram and Lot not only had to share pasture between themselves, but were at the mercy of those who had prior claim to the land.

I smile as I read these verses, for God works in strange and sometimes humorous ways to accomplish His will. Long before, God had told Abram to leave his country and his relatives. At that time, leaving Lot was mainly a matter of principle. Abram was to do it because God had said to. Now, years later, Abram reluctantly acknowledged that a separation must take place, not as a matter of principle, but out of practical expediency.

My friend, one way or the other God’s will is going to be done. It could have been done by Abram in Ur, but it was not. God providentially brought an irritation and competition between Abram and Lot which forced a separation to occur. Sooner or later, God’s purposes will come to pass. If we do not see the need for obedience, God will create one. You can count on it.

A Request Is Made

No doubt the problem which caused Abram and Lot to separate had long been evident. I would imagine that Abram had frequently discussed it with Sarai, his wife. The text does not tell us any of this, but I suspect that Sarai’s words were to Abram the same as countless wives have reserved for such a time as this: “I told you so.”

Often, the course of action which is inevitable is obvious to our mate long before we are willing to accept the reality of our circumstances. Sarai may well have posed a very different solution than the one Abram formulated. She might have said to Abram, “Tell Lot to hit the trail.” “God didn’t call Lot to Canaan, Abram, but you.” “Let him leave!” All of this, of course, is mere conjecture on my part. But any student of human nature would have to find it at least a realistic possibility.

Abram’s solution could not have been more gracious or godly. His motivation seems to be ethically, and not economically, based.

Then Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right, or if to the right, then I will go to the left’ ( Genesis 13:8-9).

More than anything, Abram wanted to maintain peace and heal the strife which had come between himself and Lot. The overriding principle is that of the unity of brotherhood that must be preserved. Strangely, though very practically, this unity is to be preserved by separation. Someone must leave, either Abram or Lot.

Seemingly, it was obvious that they must separate. The only question was who would leave, and where would he go? Abram left that decision to Lot. Whichever way Lot chose, Abram would act correspondingly. The offer gave Lot the advantage, and left Abram vulnerable.

A Resolution and Its Results

It would seem that both men were standing on a high spot from which all of the surrounding land was visible when Abram made his offer to Lot. Lot’s decision was made on the basis of cool calculation. With the eye of an appraiser, he looked over the land, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the options:

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere—this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar. So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other (Genesis 13:10-11).

As the father of five children, I can appreciate what went into the look of Lot as he surveyed the land about them. Any of my children could work for the Bureau of Standards. With a mere glance, each can easily gauge the quantity of root beer in any glass. Without any apparent effort they reach out for a glass and the first to grab always ends up with the largest, no matter how small the difference. That same kind of look was evident in the eyes of Lot.

He fixed his gaze on the beautiful Jordan valley. Its beautiful green evidenced the presence of the plentiful waters of the Jordan for irrigation. The parched hills and dusty ground beyond were of little interest. There was scarcely any water there.

Literally, this Jordan valley was a paradise. It was just like that ‘garden of the Lord’ (13:13). It, too, seems to have been provided for by irrigation, rather than rain (Genesis 2:6, 10ff.). The Jordan valley was also like the land of Egypt. One did not have to live by faith in such a place for water was abundant, and one did not have to look to God for rain.

And so Lot’s choice was made, clearly the shrewd decision, and seemingly the choice that gave him the decided edge in the competition between himself and Abram. It was, in my mind, a selfish decision—one that took all of the best and left Abram with that which seemed worthless.

The simplest and fairest separation would have been to make the Jordan river the boundary between the two men. What would have been more fair than to have chosen one side of the river to dwell in and to leave the other to Abram? But Lot chose ‘all the valley of the Jordan’ (verse 11). He did a masterful job of looking out for number one. He could have written a book on that subject.

Abram and Lot have now separated. Abram dwelt in Canaan, while Lot edged more and more closely to Sodom.

Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom (Genesis 13:12).

Lot had considered very carefully the economic factors of his decision, but he totally neglected the spiritual dimensions. God had promised to bless Abram, and others through him as they blessed Abram (Genesis 12:3). As Lot went his way, I believe he patted himself on the back for putting one over on old Abe. He must have been soft in the head to give such an advantage to Lot, and Lot was just sharp enough to cash in on it. But in the process, he did not bless Abram, but belittled him. That necessitated cursing and not blessing (Genesis 12:3).

Furthermore, Lot had not considered the consequences of living in the cities of the valley. While the soil was fertile and water was plentiful, the men in those cities were wicked. The spiritual cost of Lot’s decision was great. And, in the final analysis, the material benefits all become losses, too.

Lot did not intend, I believe, to actually live in the cities of the valley. At first, he simply set off in that general direction (cf. verse 11). But once our direction is set, our destination is also determined for it is now only a matter of time. While Lot lived in his tents at first (13:2), before long he has traded in his tent for a townhouse in Sodom (19:2,4,6). He may have lived in the suburbs initially, but at last he lived in the city (19:1ff).

Some decisions may not seem very significant, but they set a particular course for our lives. The decision may not seem very important, but its final outcome can be terrifying and tragic. And often the appearance is that his choice is one that is certain to be to our advantage. Material prosperity should never be sought at the cost of spiritual peril.

How time can change our perspective of prosperity! When the decision was made to settle in the Jordan valley, it was a virtual paradise (13:10). Moses, however, included a parenthetical remark which put this beauty in a very different light: “This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 13:10).

How different things appear in the wake of divine judgment. A beautiful paradise, and so it was—until God brought down fire and brimstone upon it (19:24). From that day on it was a wasteland.

Far more than the loss of his possessions and his prosperity, Lot paid a terrible price for his short-lived pleasure. According to Peter, Lot’s soul was continually vexed by what he saw in that city (II Peter 2:7). Even when the saint is surrounded by sensual pleasure, he cannot enjoy sin for long. And more tragic than anything, Lot paid for his decision in his family. His wife was turned to salt because of her attachment to Sodom (19:26). His daughters seduced Lot and caused him to commit incest, no doubt a reflection on the moral values they had learned in Sodom (19:30ff.).

Reassurance for Abram

It is of interest that God did not speak to Abram (so far as Scripture informs us, at least) until after he had made his decision to separate. This fact is not incidental, but fundamental, for we read, “And the Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, … ” (Genesis 13:14).

God’s call of Abram (12:1-3), so far as we can discern, was to Abram alone. So also was the confirmation in chapter 13. God had commanded Abram to leave his relatives (12:1). Blessing could not come apart from obedience to God’s revealed will, and neither would reassurance. Humanly speaking, the only thing which stood in the way of divine blessing was human disobedience. God removed that barrier by providentially separating Lot, and now the promise of God is restated.

‘… Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered. Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you’ (Genesis 13:14b-17).

Lot had ‘lifted up his eyes’ (verse 10) and beheld the land before him with the eyes of one weighing financial promise, Abram was commanded to look through the eyes of faith in God’s promise.

Abram here may have stood on some elevated spot, surveying the land that was his, and perhaps also that land which Lot had chosen to occupy. If I had been standing in Abram’s sandals, I would have had many second thoughts. Had I not given up my golden opportunity? Did Sarai think that I had played the part of the fool? Had I failed her; had I failed God in my decision? A look at the luxuriant green of the Jordan valley against the brown barrenness of the waterless hills might have inspired such thoughts.

Yet God assured Abram that all the land he beheld was to be given him. Lot may have chosen to live in Sodom, but God had not given it to him for a possession, nor would He. Lot was to be a sojourner in Sodom (cf. 19:9) and not for long, either. Giving Lot the advantage was not giving up his hopes for the future, for it is ultimately God Who brings blessing to men by His sovereign choice.

As Abram stood, looking over the land, he could perhaps see the rich black dirt of the Jordan valley where Lot was headed. Also he could see the dust which blew about him, typifying the land where he would live. But God used that very dust as a testimony to the blessings that would come. His seed would be as plentiful as the dust which dominated the land where he lived. No longer was he to look on that dust with doubt, but with hope, for it was to be the symbol of future blessing.

God’s final word to Abram in this visitation was to survey the land which would someday be his. For now he was not to possess it, but to inspect it with the eye of faith. The promise, “For I will give it to you” (verse 17) is future. It was not until the occupation of the land by the Israelites under Joshua that this promise was fulfilled. God’s promises take time to be possessed, and this is because God has planned it that way.

How gracious God is to speak words of comfort and reassurance when all appearance of blessing seems out of reach. How good to be reminded that God’s Word is reliable and that His promises are as certain as He is sovereign.

Abram’s Response

Abram’s response revealed a growing faith in the God Who called him. He moved his tents toward Hebron, settling near the oaks of Mamre. It was a plot of ground which belonged to another, not Abram (cf. 14:3), but it was where God wanted him to be. There Abram built an altar and worshipped his God.

How different were the paths of these two men after they separated. The one was almost imperceptibly edging closer and closer to the city of Sodom, to live among godless and wicked men, and all for the sake of financial gain. The other was living the life of the sojourner, dwelling on those barren hills, with his hope in the promises of God. One lives in his tent and builds an altar of worship; the other trades in his tent for an apartment in the city of wicked men. Here was a decision which bore heavily on the destiny of two men, but, far more, on the destiny of their offspring.


The decisions reached by Abram and Lot are the same as those which confront every Christian. We must decide whether to trust in the sovereignty of God or in our own schemes and devices. We must determine whether to trust in the ‘uncertainty of riches’ or in the God Who ‘richly supplies us’ (I Timothy 6:17). We must decide whether to invest in the ‘passing pleasures of sin’ or the future ‘reward’ which is promised by God (Hebrews 11:25-26).

These decisions are clearly contrasted in the separation of Lot and Abram. Lot chose to act on the basis of utility; Abram on the basis of unity. For the sake of unity, Abram was willing to be taken advantage of (cf. I Corinthians 6:1-11, esp. verse 7).

Abram acted on the ground of faith in a God Who had promised to provide. Lot chose to direct his life on the uncertain foundation of financial security. Abram was greatly blessed, and Lot lost it all.

Lot chose to dwell in a city which seemed like paradise (13:10), but was filled with sinners. Abram decided to live in a deserted place, but where he could freely worship his God.

Abram beautifully illustrates the truth of two New Testament facts. First, he provides a commentary on these words, spoken by our Lord:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:5,9 NIV).

Abram was a man of meekness. He was not a man of weakness, as chapter 14 demonstrates. He did not have to forcefully snatch blessing, but faithfully wait for it from God’s hand. He was one who was given to peace, rather than to sacrifice it for prosperity.

Then, too, we find this incident in the life of Abram instructive when compared to these words from the apostle Paul:

If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the some mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:1-5).

Abram was successful because he was a servant. He did not get ahead in life because he climbed the hill of success over the wreckage of men’s lives who got in his way. He was exalted by God because he placed the interests of others ahead of his own.

He did not consider Lot better than himself, as some translations wrongly suggest. Surely our Lord, Who is the supreme example of humility, did not consider fallen and sinful men better than He, the infinite, sinless God. Rather, He asked to secure their benefit at His expense. He looked to God for blessing and for justice (cf. I Peter 2:23).

The world’s way of getting ahead is to look out for number one. That was Lot’s way, as well. God’s way to blessing is looking up to Number One, and looking out for others (cf. Matthew 22:36-40). Such a life can only be lived by faith. Such a life can only cause our faith in God to grow.

The beginning point for every man, woman, and child is to look to God for salvation. We cannot, we dare not, trust in our own shrewdness to get us entrance into God’s kingdom. Often what we perceive to be ‘paradise’ is soon to be destroyed by divine wrath. Faith recognizes our sinfulness and trusts in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary for eternal security and blessing. Our own best efforts are doomed to destruction. Only what God promises and provides will endure.

May God enable each of us to trust in Him, and not in ourselves.
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15. The Rescue of Lot (Genesis 14:1-24)


I suffer from an incurable fascination with sermon titles. I regret already having written the message for Genesis chapter 13 because I now have a new title for it. It should have been, ‘‘Abram had a Lot to Lose.” Chapter 14 could then be, “Abram had a Lot to Gain.” Perhaps chapter 15 would be, “Abram had a Lot to Learn.” So much for titles.

On our local Christian radio station there is a program which attempts to give ‘another view of the news.’ I appreciate this effort because the Christian should certainly see much more than the secular analysts do in the news of our time. For example, great catastrophes, such as the eruption of Mount St. Helen and the earthquakes in California, may foreshadow the signs of the end times (cf. Matthew 24:7). The rapid increase in crime and lawlessness may be viewed as fulfilling the moral conditions of the last days (cf. II Timothy 3:1-7). The outbreak of war, the threat of it elsewhere, and the alignment of nations all are of great significance to the alert Christian (cf. Ezekiel 38; Daniel 12; Matthew 24:6-8).

There is, of course, a secular side of the news. It deals mainly with the facts and figures, the details and descriptions of the events which have occurred. Explanations for these events are almost always humanistic and economic in nature.

For the Christian there should be another dimension—the spiritual side of history. If God is sovereign in history, as the Bible claims Him to be (cf. Psalm 2; Proverbs 21:1; Daniel 2:21; Acts 4:23-31), then His hand is to be seen as guiding history to achieve His purposes.

Such is the case in Genesis chapter 14. Here, for the first time in the Scriptures, patriarchal and secular history intersect.147 On the surface, this incident is merely an international power struggle to ensure economic supremacy by the control of a crucial trade route. The ‘other side of the news’ is that this event serves as a commentary on Genesis chapter 13 and as an opportunity for instruction, both for Lot and Abram. While Lot seems to have learned little, Abram’s faith is matured.

The Sacking of
Sodom and the Loss of Lot

The first 11 verses of chapter 14 might puzzle the 20th century reader for they are strangely secular. Worse yet, they seem remote, disinteresting, and dull. They contain an account of the power struggle between two opposing coalitions of kingdoms.

The first block of nations was that of the four Mesopotamian kings of the east (14:2). Chedorlaomer, king of Elam (modern Iran), seems to have been dominant.148 Shinar was the region of ancient Babylon (cf. Genesis 10:10). The second alliance was made up of five kings, including the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (14:2).

After 12 years as vessels of the four eastern kings, the five southern kings attempted to throw off their shackles. The eastern kings could not allow such rebellion to go unpunished. This revolt did not go unnoticed by others in the same plight (cf. 14:5-7). The economic results of ignoring the insurrection were too devastating to contemplate. The five southern kings controlled the territory through which the ‘way of the kings’ passed. This was the land bridge through which commerce between Egypt and the four eastern kingdoms must pass. Whoever controlled this land bridge maintained a monopoly on international trade.

The route taken by the Mesopotamian kings has been the subject of considerable criticism.

It reveals a wide sweep to the east and south and then around to the southwest; then northeast to the western side of the Dead Sea, and lastly the troops swarm down upon their final objective, the cities in the Vale of Siddim.149

Two explanations seem to satisfy the objections which have been raised. I believe both of them together reveal the wisdom of Chedorlaomer’s strategy. First, the route of the conquest seems to be the ‘way of the kings,’ the trade route which the Mesopotamian kings sought to insure.150 The rebellion of the five southern kings may well have prompted similar acts from the other kingdoms. The four Mesopotamian kings thus sought to restore their sovereignty over the entire length of the trade route.

Secondly, the four kings sought to deal with the rebel kingdoms one at a time. By securing their position first with these other kingdoms the danger of attack from the rear was removed. The noose seems to be drawing tighter about these rebels as the account progresses.151 It may have been hoped that as victories continued to pile up for the four kings that a surrender would be preferable to defeat for the five southern kings.

The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah, with their allies, must have decided it was more noble to suffer defeat in war than to have to back down by surrendering. The troops dug in for all-out battle in the valley of Siddim (14:8). The rebel kingdoms must have offered little resistance to the invasion. As they retreated from the enemy, some fell into the tar pits of the valley, others fled to the hills (14:10).

Sodom and Gomorrah were sacked. Everything and everyone that could be carried off was. That is the secular side of the news. But why is so much emphasis placed upon the details and description of this event?

The answer is only to be found in the ‘other side of the news,’ the spiritual dimension. Apart from the facts and figures, the strategies and the speculations of human reasoning, there was a spiritual purpose. This international incident is not to be understood only in terms of power struggle and economic forces. It was a part of the program of the sovereign God for the lives of two of His people, Lot and Abram.

The remark which, to the unenlightened eye, seems casual and incidental is foundational:

“And they also took Lot, Abram’s nephew, and his possessions and departed, for he was living in Sodom” (Genesis 14:12).

What a commentary on the decision of Lot in chapter 13. Lot had chosen to act on the basis of economic self-interest, and had thus disregarded the covenant God had made with Abram (12:1-3). What Lot should have learned is that “he who lives by the sword, also dies by it.” Economic self-interest was the motive of the kings of both alliances, both southern and Mesopotamian.

All that Lot seemed to have gained by taking advantage of Abram was lost in an instant, and seemingly by chance. He was caught in the middle of an international incident. Can you imagine the thoughts which went through Lot’s mind as he and his family and all their goods were being carted off to a distant land? He who had been so shrewd was now a slave, and all because of his selfish choice.

Also do you notice that Lot was said to have been living in Sodom (verse 12)? When we left him in chapter 13 he was first living in the valley of the Jordan, heading eastward (13:11). Then he moved his tents as far as Sodom (13:12). At last Lot is one of them, at least so far as the victors were concerned.

Lot Rescued By His Uncle Abram

One of those who escaped from Chedorlaomer found Abram and reported Lot’s fate to him.

Then a fugitive came and told Abram the Hebrew. Now he was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner, and these were allies with Abram (Genesis 14:13).

Noteworthy is the designation of Abram as “the Hebrew.”152 It seems that he was beginning to become well-known by those who lived in that land. Abram was dwelling by the Oaks of Mamre. Mamre and his two brothers, Eshcol and Aner, had formed an alliance with Abram (verse 13).

Assembling his forces, and those of his allies,153 Abram hastily pursued the captors of Lot.

And when Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he led out his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan (Genesis 14:14).

One cannot really be certain that it was Abram’s faith that prompted him to undertake such a risky venture while seemingly so greatly outnumbered. At least we must be careful of reading an act of faith into the text. Nowhere is Abram’s motive clearly stated.

There were a number of good reasons to ignore the report of the fugitive altogether. As Sarai no doubt suggested, the odds were not in Abram’s favor. Such a campaign could be suicide. Also, Lot got exactly what he had asked for. He chose to live in Sodom—let him learn his lesson in Elam or Babylon. He deliberately chose to take advantage of his uncle, Abram; now let him pay the price.

Whether it was a matter of faith or honor I cannot tell for sure. (Personally, I lean more toward family honor. I see Abram as a man something like Ben Cartwright on the TV series “Bonanza.”) We now see that the meekness of Abram revealed in his dealings with Lot was not weakness. For whatever reasons, Abram went after his nephew. Because of His promise to Abram (12:1-3), God protected and prospered him.

And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them, and pursued them as far as Hobah, which is north of Damascus. And he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his relative Lot with his possessions, and also the women, and the people (Genesis 14:15-16).

Abram, it would seem, had a great military mind. He employed a forced march and a surprise attack from various positions. As appearances would have it, Abram was the commander of his own men, as well as those of his allies. Pursuit was vigorous and extensive, until the victory was complete and the spoils entirely recovered. Everything was recovered: the possessions, the people, and the prodigal—Lot.

The King of Sodom
and the King of Salem

Perhaps no test a man faces is greater than that of success:

The crucible is for silver and the furnace for gold, and a man is tested by the praise accorded him (Proverbs 27:21).

One can hardly fathom the temptation the triumphal return of Abram presented to him. His reception must have been the ancient counterpart to a ticker tape parade in New York City. If the king of Sodom came out to meet Abram, how much more those of the city, who hoped for the return of their loved ones.

Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley) (Genesis 14:17).

If the king of Sodom had some appropriate words for the occasion, he had to wait to say them for out of nowhere the king of Salem appeared with the words Abram most needed to hear:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all (Genesis 14:18-20).

I believe it was providential that Melchizedek’s appearance interrupted the meeting of Abram and the king of Sodom. When Melchizedek had finished his task he apparently departed and then the king of Sodom spoke.

Melchizedek is a crucial figure in this account because he put Abram’s victory in proper theological perspective.154 There was no back-slapping or politicking. Melchizedek was a king and a priest, not a king and a politician. His words were intended to remind Abram that the victory was God’s, and that his success was a result of God’s blessing. In effect, Melchizedek’s words were a reminder of the covenant God had made with Abram when he called him from Ur to Canaan:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3).

Abram’s response was a testimony to his faith in the one God worshipped by he and Melchizedek. His tithe was tangible evidence that it was God Who deserved the glory.

Many have resorted to verse 20 as a proof-text for tithing: “… And he gave him a tenth of all.” We are told that this is the first instance of tithing, and that it occurred before the Law was given. Therefore, the practice of tithing goes beyond the Law and thus is binding on Christians today. I believe this to be fallacious thinking.

We are led to believe that Abram tithed to Melchizedek, giving him a tenth of all his possessions. But when Moses wrote, “… he gave him a tenth of all,” what did he mean by all—all what?

This may come as a shock to you, but Abram did not give a tithe of his possessions. First of all, Abram was not at home, with his possessions, but on his way back home, with the possessions of the king of Sodom and his allies. The writer to the Hebrews informs us of the content of Abram’s tithe:

Now observe how great this man was to whom Abraham, the patriarch, gave a tenth of the choicest spoils (Hebrews 7:4).

Imagine this scene. Abram is met by the king of Sodom, who, no doubt, heaps praises upon him. The king of Salem arrives who urges Abram to give the glory to God. And then the king of Sodom stands wide-eyed and open-mouthed as Abram gives a tenth of the best spoils of Sodom to Melchizedek. What a witness to the glory of God and the sinfulness of Sodom! That, my friend, is no example of biblical tithing.

The king of Sodom knew well that “to the victor belongs the spoils.” In addition, he had already witnessed a tenth of the goods being given to the king of Salem (Jerusalem). The best bargain this pagan could hope to strike was to get back the people and to surrender the possessions to Abram:

And the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself’ (Genesis 14:21).

How tempting this offer must have been to Abram. By all rights, and even by the request of the king of Sodom, the spoils were his. In a way it was poetic justice. Lot had chosen Sodom for its promise of material blessings. Lot had seemingly gotten the best of Abram, and now God was giving it back to Abram to whom it should have belonged in the first place.

Abram’s words must have been an even greater shock to the king of Sodom than his act of sharing the spoils with Melchizedek:

And Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, “I have made Abram rich”’ (Genesis 14:22-23)

Where would you suppose Abram found the words that he spoke to the king of Sodom? From the king of Salem—where else? Melchizedek referred to his God and Abram’s as “God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.” This was an unusual designation for God (El Elyon—cf. the margin of verses 19, 20, NASV), and yet Abram used it—the same words as Melchizedek had spoken.

The arrival of the king of Salem, I believe, was a turning point for Abram because it brought his victory into perspective. While men may give glory to men, the saint must give the glory to God for any victory ultimately is His, not ours.

For this reason, Abram could not accept the offer of keeping the goods of Sodom. Abram, like Melchizedek, was now jealous for God’s glory to be His alone. To accept anything from a pagan king would be to give him the opportunity to suppose that his giving was responsible for Abram’s success. The price of such goods was too high and so Abram refused what was rightfully his.

This is a wonderful conviction to which Abram has come, but notice that he does not cram his convictions down the throats of his allies:

I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eschol, and Mamre; let them take their share (Genesis 14:24).

What the men have eaten of Sodom’s goods is not to be repaid. But also what the others are entitled to, who are not related to God by faith, should not be withheld.


Perhaps more than anything the event in Genesis 14 provides us with a divine commentary on the decisions made in chapter 13. Lot chose Sodom and self-interest, and nearly lost everything because of it. Abram chose to pursue peace and thereby was given a military victory. Lot relied on himself and became a slave. Abram trusted God and become a prominent figure among his brethren. How different our decisions appear in the light of history. History weighs the decisions of men.

This passage also reminds us of the sovereignty of God in the affairs of men. God is in control of history. The events which appear to be only secular often have a much deeper spiritual purpose and significance. What seems to be a tragic situation in which Lot is caught between two competing political systems is really the purpose of God being worked out for the benefit of two men (primarily), Lot and Abram. There is, my Christian friend, another side of the news.

I am reminded by the appearance of Melchizedek that there are no “Lone Rangers” in the Christian faith. There are times when we feel as though no one else is keeping the faith, but such impressions are self-deception (cf. I Kings 19:14,18). Here was a godly king/priest, Melchizedek, whom we have not seen before, nor after, but he is a true believer.

God works through men, my friend. While we may like to be self-sufficient, this is not God’s way. At a critical point in the life of Abram, God sent a man to set him straight and to keep him from taking success too seriously. Thank God for the men and women God uses in our lives, and for the fact that He uses us to minister to others at crucial times in life.

There is also the reminder that in the matter of giving and receiving, the most important issue is the glory of God. If we give to receive glory, our gifts are of no benefit (cf. Matthew 6:2-4). If we prosper at the hand of those who reject God and who take the glory themselves, God’s glory is veiled to men. Let us be most cautious in this matter of money and material things. Some may take money, even from the devil, but Abram would not.

Finally, this event provides us with a beautiful illustration of the salvation of God. Lot chose to go his own way, seeking his own interests over the promise of God to bless men through Abram. As a result of his self-seeking, Lot had to face the consequences of his sin. Rather than peace and prosperity he found shame and slavery.

At the point where Lot was able to do nothing to correct his errors or to free himself from bondage, Abram, at great personal risk, won the victory and won his release. Saving Lot was the sole reason for Abram’s daring rescue. In spite of Lot’s disregard for Abram, Abram rescued him from the consequences of his own sin.

All of us, the Bible says, have sinned.

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

We have all gone our own way:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6a).

The good news of the gospel is that God sent His son, Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sins. The consequences and penalty for our sins were suffered by Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried, Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Have you trusted in Him? Will you acknowledge your willfulness and waywardness and your need to be released from the bondage of sin? God’s rescue mission has succeeded, and its benefits are free for all who believe that salvation is in Christ alone.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

The one who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness that God has borne concerning His Son. And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life (I John 5:10-12).

147 “For the first time, the biblical events are expressly co-ordinated with external history.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 118.

148 “Elamite and Babylonian domination of Palestine had been effective for twelve years. Chedorlaomer the Elamite was at the time in question sovereign also over Babylon, a fact with which historical records agree.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 450.

149 Ibid, p. 451.

150 “The route of the conquest has a continuous history from c. 2500 B.C. down to present times. Along it from end to end have been found tells, some quite large, indicating that the route indeed is actual and historical, giving ample incitation to the cupidity of the invaders. It came to be called in later times ‘The King’s Way!’ (Num. 20:17; 21:22).” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 148.

151 “The simplest of all explanations is that the army coming from the east wanted to eliminate the possibility of an attack from the rear by unfriendly groups. These unfriendly groups were either unsubdued opponents or subjugated opponents known to be restive and inclined to side with other revolters. . . . It shows the line being drown closer and closer about Sodom and Gomorrah. We are made to sense the apprehension of the revolting cities; and they turn around from point to point as reports come pouring in about the defeat of the groups being attacked.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 401, p. 149.

152 “Abram is for the first time called “the Hebrew.” It has been considered by some that “Hebrew” is not equivalent to Habiru, though others, including Kenyon, find them possibly equivalent. One characteristic occupation of the Habiru was that of mercenary soldier, and Abram fits that picture in his rescue of Lot. The name “Hebrew” thus is a memorial epithet of this rescue, not indeed of disapprobation, but in the best sense. As indicated by the contents of the cuneiform documents, Abram again is found to fit into his age.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 149.

153 Verse 24 informs us that men from Eschol, Mamre, and Aner accompanied Abram on this military campaign, for they were to share in the spoils.

154 Some may puzzle at the fact that I have not delved into the typological significance of Melchizedek. The writer to the Hebrews does so (Hebrews 5,7) reflecting on the event in Genesis, combined with the prophecy of Psalm 110:4. The reason I have not dealt with the typological importance of Melchizedek is that, for Moses, Melchizedek’s typical significance was secondary, not primary. It was supplemental to, and not fundamental to, the literal, historical, grammatical meaning of the text. The typological meaning of any text is a fringe benefit, but it is not to supplant the literal interpretation of the text. The typical meaning may never have entered the mind of the writer (only the mind of God), but the literal meaning was the writer’s intended message.
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16. The Focal Point of Abram’s Faith (Genesis 15:1-21)


In Genesis chapter 15 we come to one of the high-water marks of Old Testament revelation, summarized for us in verse 6: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Up to this point, Abram’s faith has been more general in its nature. It has rested primarily upon the call of God as recorded in chapter 12:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse (Genesis 12:1-3).

God seldom allows our faith to remain general, however, and so we face crises points which bring our faith from the abstract to the concrete, and from the general to the specific. Such is the case with Abram in this chapter.

Abram’s Hope for an Heir

God’s words to Abram155 are far from what we would have expected in such circumstances: “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great” (Genesis 15:1).

Why would Abram possibly be afraid? He had just won a great victory over Chedorlaomer and the three other eastern kings (Genesis 14:14-15). Because of this, he had, no doubt, received considerable recognition, even from the pagan king of Sodom (14:17, 21-24). What fear could haunt Abram’s faith at such a time of victory?

It is possible that Abram feared future military reprisals from Chedorlaomer and his allies. He may have won the battle, but had he won the war? The word of God to Abram, “I am a shield to you,” could very well be aimed at subsiding this fear of future military conflict.

This cannot be Abram’s greatest concern, especially in view of the remaining verses. Abram’s victory was not so sweet in the light of one question which seemed to overshadow all else, “What good is success, without a successor?”

Abram’s response to God confirms this: “And Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘Since Thou hast given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir’” (Genesis 15:2-3).

In the Ancient Near East there was a well-attested practice to ensure an heir, even if no son were born to the man.156 The childless couple would adopt one of the servants born into the household. This ‘son’ would care for them in their old age and would inherit their possessions and property at the time of their death. At this low point in Abram’s faith, it was the best for which he thought he could hope.

God had promised Abram far more than that which he could provide for himself. Eliezer was not the heir that He had promised. His descendants were to come from his own reproductive cells. He would have a son of his own.

Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir’ (Genesis 15:4).

To reassure Abram, God took him outside and drew his attention to the stars in the heavens. This is how numerous the offspring of Abram would be through his son that would surely come (verse 5).

Verse 6 describes Abram’s response to divine revelation: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).

The translation of the NASV is somewhat unfortunate. The first word ‘then’ attempts to convey the idea that Abram responded to God’s promise of a son by belief. In this sense, it is a good translation. The difficulty which arises, is that ‘then’ may convey more than it should. Verse 6 is the first time the word ‘believe’ is used. It is also the first time that Abram is said to have been reckoned as righteous. It would be easy to conclude that Moses meant that this is the first time Abram had faith in God, and that he is here ‘saved’ (to use the New Testament word).

In the book of Hebrews we read: “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8).

Here the writer to the Hebrews intends us to understand that Abram ‘believed’ God before chapter 15, even as he left Ur to enter the land of Canaan.

The solution is not as difficult as it may seem. The grammar of verse 6 indicates that Abram’s faith did not begin here.157 Not only did he previously believe, he continued to believe. The ‘then’ of our translation may therefore be a little too strong.

But why did Moses wait until this point to tell us that Abram believed, and that he was justified by faith? Luther’s answer, I believe is most satisfactory. Abram’s faith is not mentioned until now in order to emphasize the fact that a saving faith is one that focuses upon the person and work of Jesus Christ.158 Here Abram’s faith is focused upon the promise of a son, through whom blessing will come to the whole world. While we may not fully determine how complete Abram’s understanding of all this was, we must not overlook the words of the Savior: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” ( John 8:56).

While Abram had believed in God, here his faith is more clearly defined and focused. Here his faith is in the promise of God to provide the blessing of a son, and blessings through Him. It is at this point that God chose to announce that Abram’s faith was a saving faith.

Notice three things about this faith of Abram:

(1) First of all, it was a personal faith. By this I mean that Abram believed in the Lord. He did not merely believe about God, but in Him. Herein is the distinction between many professing Christians and those who are possessing Christians—genuinely reborn by faith in the person of Christ.

(2) Second, Abram’s faith was a propositional faith. While Abram believed in the person of God, his faith was based upon the promises of God. Many believe in the god of their own definition. Abram believed in the God of revelation. The covenant God made here with Abram (verses 12ff) gave Abram specific propositions on which to base his faith and his practice.

(3) Abram’s faith was also a practical faith. By this I mean that Abram’s belief was one that necessitated action. Clearly, Abram’s works did not initiate his salvation, but they did demonstrate it (cf. James 2:14ff.). Also, Abram’s faith was related to a very practical and sensed need—the need for a son. God does not ask us to believe in the abstract, but in the everyday matters of life.

When Moses says that Abram’s faith was reckoned for righteousness it does not mean that Abram’s faith was, in some fashion, exchanged for righteousness. Abram’s faith, like ours today, was not something which he conjured up by mental or spiritual effort. Faith itself is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9). His faith was in the coming child and in his offspring, one of whom would be the Messiah. It was because Abram looked to the One God would provide for righteousness that God declared him to be righteous. Technically speaking, salvation (and faith) are a gift, but righteousness comes through the legal process of imputation. Abram was legally declared righteous by God because he trusted in Him Who was righteous. The righteousness of Christ, imputed to Abram because of his God-given faith, saved him.

God’s way of saving men is not new. It has not changed from Old Testament times to New. Always, God has saved men by grace, through faith. There is no other way. While Abram was saved by faith in the One Who would come, we are saved by faith in this One Who has come. That is the only difference.

Reassurance Concerning
the Land Abram Would Possess

Having dealt with Abram’s greatest need for reassurance—namely that of an heir, God went on to strengthen Abram’s faith concerning the land he would possess: “And He said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it’” (Genesis 15:7).

Abram’s question does not seem to reflect disbelief, but wonder at how this will be accomplished: “And he said, ‘O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8).

The tone seems similar to that of Mary when told she will be the mother of Messiah: “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’” (Luke 1:34).

God did not rebuke Abram for his question, but confirmed His promise by a covenant.

So He said to him, ‘Bring Me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. And the birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away ( Genesis 15:9-11).

In the ancient world of Abram, legal and binding agreements were not put on papers written by lawyers and signed by the parties involved. Instead, the two parties would arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement, and then they would formalize it in the form of a covenant.

The covenant was sealed by the dividing of an animal (or animals). In fact, the technical term literally means ‘go cut a covenant.’ The animal(s) was cut in half and the two parties would pass between the halves. It seems that in this oath, the men acknowledged that the fate of the animal should be theirs if they broke the terms of their agreement.

So we see that these verses do not describe the process of animal sacrifice, but the legal act of making a binding agreement. Verses 9-11 set the stage for the final ratification of this covenant.

Some time seems to have passed between the preparation of the animals and the final ratification (cf. verse 11). Toward the end of this delay, Abram fell into a deep, trance-like state: “Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12).

The “terror and darkness,” in my estimation, was more than that occasioned by an awareness of God’s presence. I believe it was the normal response to the horrors of the revelation of the treatment of Abram’s children in the next 400 years. Abram’s descendants would possess the land of Canaan, but not until after a considerable delay and many difficulties:

And God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions’ (Genesis 15:13-14).

Very carefully, Egypt remains unnamed as the land where this bondage would occur. Not only did Abram not need to know this, but such knowledge could have been detrimental before this bondage came to pass. It was no problem for those who read these words of Moses to know the land of which he spoke. Indeed, they had just come forth from Egypt. What a strange thing it must have been for those Israelites who were brought out of Egypt to read this prophecy which so accurately described their experience.

There seems to be two reasons for the 400-year delay before the land of Canaan would be possessed. First, the children of Abraham would not yet be able (or numerous enough) to possess the land earlier. Also the people of the land were not yet wicked enough to thrust out: “Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:16).

Here is an important principle, and one that governs the possession of the land of Canaan. God owns the land of Canaan (Leviticus 25:23), and He lets it out to those who will live according to righteousness. When Israel forgot their God and practiced the abominations of the Canaanites (cf. II Chronicles 28:3, 33:2), God put them out of the land also.

In the light of the present debate over who has legitimate claim in the land of Israel, let us remember this principle. It is God who owns the land, not the Jews, nor the Arabs. God will not allow the Jews to possess the land and live wickedly any more than He will the Gentiles.

Over the next 400 or more years from the time of this revelation, two programs were simultaneously at work. The Canaanites were growing more and more wicked, and their day of reckoning was steadily approaching. At the same time, the nation of Israel was about to be born, growing rapidly in number, and in spiritual maturity, preparing for the day of possession.

Is this not a picture of our own day as well? Has God not said that in the last days wickedness would intensify (cf. II Thessalonians 2:1-12; II Timothy 3:1-9; II Peter 3:3ff.)? At the same time, God is purifying and preparing us for His return (cf. Ephesians 5:26-27; Colossians 1:21-23; I Peter 1:6-7). The wicked will receive recompense for their sin, and the saints will be rewarded for righteousness.

When God had spoken of Abram’s peaceable death at a ripe old age and the fate of his offspring, He ratified the covenant concerning the land that would belong to Israel:

And it came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:17-21).

This covenant is distinctive because only God, in the appearance of a smoking oven and a flaming torch, passed between the divided carcasses of animals. This was done to signify that the covenant was unilateral and unconditional. No conditions were placed upon Abram for its fulfillment.

The geographical boundaries have been clearly defined, and even the peoples who were to be dispossessed were named. God committed Himself to a very specific course of action. What more reassurance could be asked?


The bottom line for Abram was that God’s promise was now much more specific. Abram would have a son of his own through whom blessings would be poured out. Abram’s offspring would be very numerous and, in time, would possess the land. But before this, they would go through a time of delay and great difficulty.

The essence of Abram’s faith was that while he waited for the promise of future blessings, he was content in the meantime with the presence of God. Abram did not come out on the short end of the stick. Abram’s great reward was God Himself: “I am a shield to you; your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1, NASV, marginal reading).

Our theology has been greatly distorted in recent days. We are invited to come to Christ as Savior because of all that He can and will do for us. We may have come to Him for His presents, rather than His presence.

Abram was neither cheated nor short-changed in the delay of God and in the difficulties he and his offspring faced. Abram was blessed, for if God is our portion, that is enough.

The day before I delivered this message I performed the funeral for one of the young women in our church. She was a lovely young woman, a model wife and mother. She was twenty-eight years old when she died in her sleep. We still do not know the medical explanation for her death.

For the funeral message, I chose Psalm 73 as the text. In it the psalmist confesses his perplexity at the fact that so often the righteous seem to suffer (verse 14) while the wicked prosper (verses 3-12). When the writer looks at the eternal destiny of man, he realizes that God ultimately sets matters straight. The requirements of justice are often not fully met until eternity is entered. Heaven and hell are thus required by righteousness. Without them, justice is not satisfied.

This leads the psalmist to the conclusion that the ultimate good in life is not freedom from pain of suffering or poverty, but knowing God:

Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail; But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.… But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Thy works (Psalm 73:23-26, 28).

Here, then, is the key to understanding the blessing that is to be found in delay and difficulty: while prosperity often leads us away from God (cf. Psalm 73:7-12), affliction draws us closer (Psalm 73:25-26).

If nearness to God is the highest good, then suffering is good also, if it enhances our intimacy with Him. And prosperity is evil if it inclines us away from the good of knowing God.

That, I believe, is the key to Genesis chapter 15. Abram’s faith is strengthened by specific revelation concerning his son and the soil his offspring will inherit. But even beyond this, he is brought to the realization that faith cannot be separated from suffering, for God uses this to draw men into intimate fellowship with Himself.

Faith is seldom strengthened by success (cf. verse 1), but by believing God in the midst of delays and difficulties.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).

155 The expression found in verse 1, “the word of the Lord came to . . . ” is first employed here in the Old Testament. It is commonly used to introduce a divine revelation given to one of God’s prophets (e.g., I Samuel 15:10). We should remember that Abram is later called a prophet (Genesis 20:7). This would seem to indicate that Moses understood this revelation to have come to Abram for his benefit and ours.

156 The discovery of a number of adoption tablets at Nuzi, has greatly aided our understanding of Abram’s words: “One ‘adoption tablet’ reads: ‘The tablet of adoption belonging to {Zike}, the son of Akkuya: he gave his son Shennima in adoption to Shuriha-ilu, and Shuriha-ilu, with reference to Shennima, (from) all the lands . . . (and) his earnings of every sort gave to Shennima one (portion) of his property. If Shuriha-ilu should have a son of his own, as the principal (son) he shall take a double share; Shennima shall then be next in order (and) take his proper share. As long as Shuriha-ilu is alive, Shannima shall revere him. When Shuriha-ilu {dies}, Shennima shall become the heir.’” Mesopotamian Legal Documents, translated by Theophile J. Meek, in Pritchard, ANET, p. 220., as quoted by John J. Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 185.

157 “The form is unusual, perfect with waw, not as one would expect, imperfect with waw conversive. Apparently, by this devise the author would indicate that the permanence of this attitude is to be stressed: not only: Abram believed just this once, but: Abram proved constant in his faith . . . ” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 477.

158 “We feel our answer must take the same form as Luther’s, who points out that justification by faith is first indicated in the Scriptures in a connection where the Savior is definitely involved, in order that none might venture to dissociate justification from Him.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 479.
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17. When Women Wear the Pants (Genesis 16:1-16)


Several weeks ago Bill Gothard came to Dallas to speak to 2600 pastors. There he made a statement that was condemning to all of us. He said that, by far, the greatest complaint of pastors’ wives was that their husbands were failing to take the spiritual leadership in their homes.

Stories abound to authenticate this charge. The most common is the one in which the pastor is downstairs praying about the Lord’s leading in moving on to another church while his wife is upstairs packing his bags.

Not long ago, I read the account of how the pastor of one of the great churches in America was called. He had been asked to serve as a supply preacher by this large church. Fearing that accepting would indicate an intention to campaign for this coveted position, he declined. But his wife disagreed and accepted the invitation for him. Fulfilling this commitment, the man later accepted the call and became the pastor of this same church.

Not all such situations work out so well, as our text in Genesis 16 teaches. Abram, the man of faith, revealed that he had feet of clay even in his own home. The devastating results of his passivity in the face of pressure should serve to warn us all.

While here Abram is shown to have failed by listening to his wife, let me quickly say that many of us fail because we don’t listen to our wives when we should. Do not come to this text as a club to employ on your wife, men, for that is a serious error. Let us not come to this passage to prooftext our preconceived ideas and prejudices, but to enlighten our hearts and minds, and thus, to grow in faith.

Sarai’s Proposal

The first six verses are not merely a condemnation of Sarai’s attitudes and actions. In reality we find a concert of sins with Abram, Sarai, and Hagar all contributing to the discord which results. Nevertheless, it was Sarai who initiated this particular sequence of events, and thus we must begin with her.

Sarai, Abram’s wife, was prevented from having children. An heir was perhaps the one thing any ancient man would desire above all else. This was especially true of Abram, for he had been told that a great nation would originate with him:

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).

Sarai felt personally responsible for the absence of this son. She assumed that since she had not given birth to a child, and her age seemed to prohibit it, something else must be done to enable Abram to have a child through another woman. She must have been thinking in this fashion: “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children” (Genesis 16:2).

Abram could thus father a child, although Sarai would not be the mother.

The culture of that day provided the means to accomplish Sarai’s intentions. Ancient documents reveal that when a woman could not provide her husband with a child, she could give her female slave as a wife and claim the child of this union as her own.159

The consequences of Sarai’s plan inform us that such a proposal was wrong. Several evidences of this sin can be demonstrated. First of all, Sarai seems to have considered it her responsibility to produce a son for Abram. No basis for this assumption can be seen in Scripture:

Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3).

In the Abrahamic covenant here given, Abram was commanded to do one thing—leave Ur. God, on the other hand, had promised to guide Abram (verse 1), to make him a great nation (verse 2), and to bless the Earth through him (verse 3). Nowhere is either Abram or Sarai given the responsibility for producing the son. Implied, at least, is the assurance that God will provide a son.

Sarai’s words betray a reluctance to accept the fact that God sovereignly prevented her from having a son: “Now behold the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her” (Genesis 16:2).

Here is the sin of presumption. Failing to trust God to provide a son, she forced the situation by pressuring Abram into taking Hagar as his wife.

Strangely, the great commentator, Leupold, attempts to diminish Sarai’s guilt by stressing her faith in the promise of God160 and her self-sacrifice in giving Hagar to her husband.161 I do not agree with either explanation. Nowhere is there any expression of faith in the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It seems to me that she wanted to remove the social stigma of barrenness, and to strengthen their relationship by giving a son to Abram, even if it involved the sacrifice of principle.

While monogamy may not be clearly commanded, it was presented as that which was original and ideal (Genesis 2:18-25). The first mention of polygamy is far from complimentary (cf. Genesis 4:19ff.). Further on in the book more than one wife is always accompanied by conflict and competition (cf. Genesis 29:30ff.).

In my estimation Sarai did not act in faith, but in presumption. Her primary concern seems to be with the social stigma upon her barrenness. She may well have persisted in her proposal until Abram gave in. Faith never tries to force God to act, nor to act in God’s place, nor to accomplish what is supernatural in the power of the flesh.

We have been hard on Sarai. Some may think too hard. But while Sarai was the instigator of this fiasco, Abram was at fault, also. Indeed, in some ways this sin can be traced back to Abram’s unbelief, when he left Canaan and went down to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-13:4). Is it mere coincidence that Hagar was Egyptian?

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar (Genesis 16:1).

The probability is great that Hagar was a gift from Pharaoh to Abram, a part of the dowry for Sarai: “Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels” (Genesis 12:16).

The chickens always come home to roost. I believe that Hagar was one of the consequences of Abram’s failure of faith in chapter 12. While Sarai may have been the prodder in chapter 16, the proposal was only possible, thanks to Abram’s decision to sojourn in Egypt.

In chapter 16 Abram is more of a pushover than a patriarch. His wife never mentioned God or the covenant He had made with Abram. Faith did not seem to be a factor, nor was God’s will ever sought. What a time for Abram to stand firm, but instead he fizzled. Seemingly with little or no protest, he passively followed the instructions of his wife. She wanted an heir. She planned the honeymoon. Abram did as he was told.

‘Abram listened to his wife,’ we are told (16:2). Listen in the Old Testament is often a synonym for obedience. Abram’s failure was not in listening, but in heeding her instructions without weighing their implications. I doubt that Abram really did ‘listen’ in the sense of grasping what Sarai was trying to say. Was she asking for reassurance of Abram’s love, even if she could not provide him with a son? Was she asking for reassurance of God’s love and infinite power? Did she need to be reminded of God’s promise? Did she wish Abram to turn her down? Abram may have obeyed without really hearing what Sarai was trying to say.

Hagar was not without her own share of guilt. She was not wrong in going to bed with Abram, so far as I can tell. She was a slave, subject to the will of her mistress. She had little or no voice in this decision. But she was wrong in the false sense of pride and smugness she felt toward Sarai.

And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight (Genesis 16:4).

Hagar forgot that God had closed Sarai’s womb. She disregarded the fact that ‘children are a gift of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3). She seemed to bask in the affection of Abram, especially when he knew she was to bear his child. She felt exalted above her mistress, and yet was still her slave. She gloried in that which was no cause for pride.

And so we have seen a sequence of sins, beginning in Egypt, and ending in the bedroom of an Egyptian slave. It is ironic how the tables have been turned. In chapter 12, Abram’s unbelief caused him to agonize while Sarai was in Pharaoh’s palace. Now, Sarai, due to her proposal, is left to ponder what is going on in Hagar’s bedroom.

Each of the three: Sarai, Abram, and Hagar, has been caught in the web of sin. Sarai acted in presumption; Abram lapsed into passivity; Hagar was the victim of pride. In yet another round of sin, each responds wrongly to the dilemma into which their sin has brought them.

Sarai found that her scheme had backfired. A child was born, but while loved by Abram (17:18,20; 21:11), Sarai despised him (21:10). Ishmael had driven a wedge between Abram and Sarai, rather than drawing them together. Even the once loyal Hagar now despised her mistress.

Abram had given Sarai what she had wanted, but now she insisted that he had failed her in doing so: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms; but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me’” (Genesis 16:5).

In spite of all the pious words Sarai spouted, they did not cover her blame for what had happened. While Sarai was angry with Abram, she must have known that it was she who had made Hagar’s bed. No confession or repentance of sin is found as yet on Sarai’s lips, but only bitter remorse.

Abram did not change his course either. He should have learned that his passivity was not piety. Letting Sarai have her way was relinquishing his leadership. He was the accomplice to sin by refusing to resist it or to rebuke Sarai. Sarai’s stinging rebuke served only to cause Abram to retreat further. He did not acknowledge his sin, nor did he confront Sarai with hers. Instead he persisted in allowing Sarai to have her own way.

But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.’ So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence (Genesis 16:6).

He had gone along with Sarai’s plan to produce an heir. Now he gave Sarai free reign in dealing with Hagar. Sarai seems to have been within the boundaries of legality,162 while stretching the standards of morality. Hagar, tired of facing Sarai’s tyranny, fled, heading back toward the land of Egypt.163

A Divine Intervention

Did you notice that God is strangely absent from the first 6 verses? It is true that God was given the credit (or the blame!) for preventing Sarai from having children. But no one had consulted God or sought His will. No one had called to remembrance His promise to provide a son.

More distressing is the fact that God has not yet spoken in our text. It would seem that since man had chosen to go his own way, God stepped aside to let him live with the consequences of disobedience. Only to Hagar did God speak. He sought her while she was running away. The reason for this divine intervention is to be found in verses 7-16.

We have said that Hagar was on her way back to Egypt when God found her. His words penetrate deeply into her actions and attitudes: “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8).

Running away does not change relationships, nor does it remove responsibility. Jonah, even in the belly of that fish, was still God’s prophet with a message for the Ninevites. Hagar continued to be Sarai’s maid, and it remained her duty to serve her mistress.

The question, “Where are you going?” seems intended to bring Hagar back to reality. Perhaps some blow-up had triggered her decision to run away. Little thought would have been taken until some distance was put between Hagar and her heavy-handed mistress. But now was the time to consider the future. Where would Hagar go? Back to Egypt? After ten years, and pregnant? Was this a reasonable thing to do?

Raising serious questions regarding Hagar’s decision, God went on to remind her of her duty. He commanded her to return to the one in authority over her: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority” (Genesis 16:9).

We cannot read this command without recalling Peter’s instructions to Christian slaves in his first epistle:

Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (I Peter 2:18-20).

These are difficult words, my friend, but they will be ignored or rejected to our own hurt. A commitment to marriage today seems to be only so long as we get from the relationship what we had hoped for. This is not just outside the church, either: “According to Lucille Lavender … ‘Among the professions, the clergy rank third in the number of divorces granted each year.’”164

Here is a frightening statistic. We want to talk much more of pleasure and fulfillment these days, than of duty. But that is what God told Hagar to do—to tend to her duty, even if it was drudgery or downright unpleasant.

With the command came a promise. In fact, the command was the condition upon which the promise would be fulfilled:

Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they shall be too many to count.’ The angel said to her further, ‘Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. And he will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers’ (Genesis 16:10-12).

I believe Kidner is correct when he says that in the fulfillment of these promises Ishmael would be a parody of his father.165 Overtones of the Abrahamic Covenant can hardly be missed in these words of reassurance to Hagar.

Ishmael’s descendants, too, will be too numerous to count (16:10; cf. 13:16; 15:5). From him will come princes and rulers (17:20). That which might seem a curse was perhaps Hagar’s greatest comfort. Ishmael would live a free lifestyle, unrestricted, unfettered, and a thorn in the flesh of his brothers (16:12). To Hagar, the afflicted slave of Sarai, this was a source of hope and comfort. Even under the cruel hand of her mistress, one can almost hear Hagar mumbling under her breath, “Just wait, Sarai.”

The predominant theme of verses 7-16 is stated by Hagar in verse 13, “Thou art a God who sees.”

The name of Hagar’s child served to commemorate the compassion of God for the afflicted. Ishmael means literally, ‘God hears.’ Even when it is the chosen of God who are the source of affliction, God hears and cares for the down-trodden. This truth did much to carry Hagar through the difficult years that lay ahead.


Our text exposes a problem which frequently confronts those who are people of faith, namely, ‘When do I work and when do I wait?’ Saul was wrong to go ahead and offer the sacrifice, even though circumstances seemed to demand it (I Samuel 13), for Saul had been commanded to wait (I Samuel 10:8). Working was wrong because God had forbidden Saul to do Samuel’s task. In Acts chapter 12 it was wrong to wait, when the Christians gathered should have worked. Peter was in prison, condemned to death (12:1-3). The saints had gathered to pray for Peter (verse 5). Many may have prayed for a quick and painless death. Some may have dared to pray for deliverance. But when Peter was standing at the door knocking, continued prayer was an act of unbelief. Then it was time to work (to open the door), not to wait (in prayer).

But how do we learn the difference between the times we should work and the times we should wait? I believe that God has supplied us with a number of principles in Genesis 16 to help us discern the difference between the two courses of action. Let me suggest some of these principles.

(1) We are to work when God has clearly given us the responsibility and the authority to do so. God had never placed the responsibility for producing a child on Sarai, or Abram. God had promised to provide the child (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; 17:6,16, 19). Just as God had prevented Sarai from conceiving (16:2), so He would provide an heir. In my estimation, we are treading on dangerous soil when we ‘step out in faith’ in an area where we have no promise of God’s presence or blessing, or where we have no principle or imperative on which to base our activity.

Furthermore, we cannot hope to succeed in any activity for which God has not given us the power to produce spiritual fruit. As Paul has shown (Galatians 4:21ff.) Ishmael was a result of the work of the flesh, not the spirit. Isaac was the result of divine activity in Abram and Sarai. No work of faith is the work of the flesh. God’s work is that accomplished through His enabling Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:16-26).

(2) We should move ahead only when our motivation to do so is that of faith. Sarai seems to have felt compelled to act because God had prevented her from having children (cf. 16:2). Despite the efforts of a number of commentators to prove otherwise, Sarai’s actions (and Abram’s) betray a motive of fear, not faith. Paul has spoken clearly when he wrote, “… whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

Several conditions should provoke us to wait, or at least to take some precautionary measures. Let me suggest some factors which may suggest that we should wait rather than work.

(1) We should be reluctant to ‘work’ when it appears that God has been preventing what we have been seeking. Here is a difficult matter, for sometimes God wishes to strengthen our faith by allowing us to overcome obstacles (cf. Exodus 14:10ff; Nehemiah, e.g. 6:1-9). At other times barriers are put up to change our direction (cf. Acts 16:6,7). Knowing the difference between problems and prohibitions requires the wisdom which God freely gives as we ask for it in faith (James 1:5-6).

(2) We should be very cautious about undertaking a work that appeals to fleshly appetites. Stop and think of the inclination Abram could have had to follow Sarai’s instructions. Remember, Sarai was essentially encouraging Abram to go to bed with her servant (cf. 16:2,3,4,5). Undoubtedly she was both young and attractive. Do you think Pharaoh would have given Abram a slave girl as part of a dowry if she were unappealing to look upon? Seemingly noble acts can have very carnal motives. I suggest that we question any work that appeals to our carnal appetites.

(3) We should hesitate to undertake any work when our primary reason for doing so is to relieve pressure, rather than to practice some principle. So far as I can tell the only reason Abram took Hagar was to appease, and perhaps silence his wife. Pressure from others is usually a poor reason for taking on any task.

(4) We should never work when our methods are inappropriate to our goals and to our God. While the goal of Abram and Sarai’s efforts was the birth of a son, an heir, the means were not such as to bring glory to God. We must grant that these means were legal and culturally acceptable. But they appear to fall short of the divine ideal. Union with Hagar attempts to accomplish God’s work with the world’s methodology.

Abram, as a result of this failure of faith, learned the painful consequences of trying to help God. In this sense, God does not need and cannot use our help. God wants to work through us. God purposed to give Abram and Sarai a child. Their efforts at producing a child on their own has resulted in the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs through the centuries.

Speaking of waiting, that is something many of us find difficult to do also. We have a little piece of plastic that frequently tempts us to work rather than to wait on God to provide. It is called the credit card. Why pray about that meal? Go out for dinner and charge it to Master Charge. There is nothing intrinsically evil about credit cards, but they surely do tempt us to act presumptuously, rather than to wait for God’s timing.

Faith, I believe we can see, is trusting in the promises of God despite the problems, and knowing that with God all things are possible. Unbelief focuses upon the problems and supposes that if God does not act within our time frame and within our expectations, we must give Him a hand. Faith believes not only that God will give us what He has promised, but that He will provide us the means to do so, and if not, that He alone will do it.

Let me mention one further observation. God spoke to Hagar in this chapter, but not to Abram or Sarai. In fact Moses tells us that (at least so far as recorded history is concerned) God did not speak to Abram for 13 years (cf. 17:1). When we choose to act upon circumstances, God may speak to us only through circumstances—loudly and clearly and painfully.

It would seem that Abram chose to get his leading from God through his wife for he never questioned her thinking or sought divine guidance (in our passage at least). Isn’t it interesting that the only way Abram knew what to name his son was by what God told Hagar (16:11; cf. verse 15)? When we choose to be led by others rather than by God, God may let us have our way, for a time. But, oh, how lonely those times will be! What fellowship and intimacy we miss.

Dress it up all you can, this text reveals that Abram’s home was beset by the same difficulties we face today. May God help us not to be presumptuous. May God help wives not to pressure their husbands into doing what seems right. May God help those of us who are husbands not to relinquish our responsibility, but to lead in our homes.

Passivity is not piety, and neither is presumption. May God enable us to walk that fine line between both.

One final note. Many people want to help God save themselves. They want a system of salvation that allows them to participate in the process of salvation. My friend, there is nothing you can contribute to your salvation. As the Scriptures teach,

There is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).

… all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6).

Just as Abram could not help God produce a son through human effort, so you cannot help God save your soul. Salvation is a gift of God, through faith in what Jesus Christ has done for lost sinners.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

By acknowledging that you are powerless to please God, and that Jesus Christ has paid for your sins and provided your righteousness, you can be saved.

159 “The Code of Hammurabi allowed a priestess of the naditum rank, who was free to marry but not have children, to give to her husband a female slave by whom he could have children: ‘When a seignior married a hierodule and she gave a female slave to her husband and she has then borne children, if later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves.’a While this provision illustrates the general practice, it is less pertinent than a custom at Nusi. One text reads: ‘If Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lullu country (i.e. a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring. . . .’b” John Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 188. Davis here quotes from (a) Pritchard, ANET, p. 172 (paragraph 149), and (b) Speiser, Genesis, p. 120.

160 “Calvin’s summary of the case is quite commendable: ‘The faith of both was defective; not, indeed, with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded.’” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 493-4.

161 “When Abram ‘hearkens’ (shama’) to his wife’s ‘voice’ (qol), he ‘approves of Sarai’s suggestion.’ No doubt, the patriarch was impressed by Sarai’s utter selflessness.” Ibid, p. 496.

162 “The Code of Hammurabi law l46, forbids the concubine to assert equality with the wife on pain of demotion to the former slave status. Sarai’s complaint to Abram reflects knowledge of both these social documents. Sarai demands that Abram do something about Hagar’s contempt! Abram refers Hagar’s discipline to Sarai.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 161.

163 “‘Shur’ is regarded by many as meaning “wall,” a meaning quite possible according to the Aramaic. In that event it may be the name of a line of fortresses erected by the Egyptian king, perhaps at the Isthmus of Suez, to keep out Asiotic invaders. In that case Hagar quite naturally was on the way back to her home country, Egypt.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 500.

164 Mary LaGrand Bouma, Minister’s Wives: The Walking Wounded, Leadership, Winter, 1980, vol. 1., p. 63.

165 “To some degree this son of Abram would be a shadow, almost a parody, of his father, his twelve princes notable in their time (17:20; 25:13) but not in the history of salvation; his restless existence no pilgrimage but an end in itself; his nonconformism a habit of mind, not a light to the nations.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, (Chicago Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 127.
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18. Grasping the Great Truth of God (Genesis 17:1-27)


One of the greatest temptations I face in preaching week after week is the compulsion to find something new to proclaim from the pulpit. When this happens, I must force myself to recognize that such an urge is most often not from God. It was the pagan Athenians who were eager to hear something new and novel (Acts 17:19). The apostles, on the other hand, set themselves to reminding Christians of the truths they had already heard (cf. I Corinthians 4:7; I Timothy 4:6; II Timothy 2:14; II Peter 1:12,13; 3:1).

Novelty may be entertaining, but it is not often edifying. Listen to these words of wisdom from the pen of C. S. Lewis. While the context is not precisely ours, the principle remains the same:

To judge from their practice, very few Anglican clergymen take this view. It looks as if they believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain—many give up churchgoing altogether—merely endure.…

But every novelty presents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself, and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’

A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service, but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.166

While little that we find in Genesis 17 may be new to us, we must remember that we have ‘read the last chapter of the book.’ What we read as ancient history, Abram learned over a period of years, piece by piece. Much of what is said in chapter 17 was new and exciting to Abraham. We cannot experience the excitement and expectation of Abraham until we have ‘walked in his shoes’ through this text.

As we approach the passage, let us think of ourselves as Abram did. He was 99 years old at the time. Twenty-four years ago Abram had left Haran, in obedience to the divine call of Genesis 12:1-3. After Abram and Lot separated and Abram had defeated the eastern alliance of kings (chapters 13 and 14), God formally made a covenant with Abram, specifying that his heir would come from his own body (15:4), and giving a more exact description of the land that he would possess (15:18-21). In addition, he was told the fate of his offspring for the next several generations (15:12-16).

Thirteen years previous to where we stand in chapter 17, Abram had taken a wrong turn. Following the advice of his wife, Abram attempted to produce the heir God had promised by following an established practice of his day, taking Sarai’s maid, Hagar, as his wife. This led only to disunity and heartbreak for all involved. So far as we can tell, God has not spoken since He encountered Hagar on her way to Egypt.

These thirteen years were not wasted. They served to illustrate the consequences of serving God in the power of the flesh, and of acting presumptuously . They served, as well, to intensify the impossibility of Abram and Sarai ever having a child between them. In this way, if a child was born at this time it would surely be a work of God, and not of man. It appears that, in the light of this difficulty, Abram had come to believe that Ishmael was his only hope for an heir.

God’s Promise

God’s words in chapter 17 break the silence of 13 years:

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. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will multiply you exceedingly’ (Genesis 17:1-2).

After thirteen years of silence, Abram must have been greatly encouraged by this encounter with God. In times past, God had only been said to have spoken to Abram (cf. 12:1) or come in a vision (15:12-17). Here, after 24 years, God revealed Himself; He appeared to Abram. Abram had seen God for the first time.

God had disclosed Himself to Abram in a more intimate fashion. Also, He manifested Himself more fully in terms of His character and attributes. God referred to Himself as ‘God Almighty,’ E1 Shaddai. This is the first time God has been called by this name. It is a designation which emphasizes His infinite power.167 What God had long before determined, and what would now be more precisely defined, would depend upon a God of infinite power to accomplish.

Previously, God had required little of Abram other than to leave (Ur) and believe (15:6) in His promise. Now that the covenant was about to be implemented,168 Abram would be required to behave in a way that God prescribed. He must walk before his God blamelessly, not in perfection,169 but in purity (15:1). It is probably not without significance that God withheld specific duties until long after Abram’s belief was evident, so that works are not the basis of the covenant but a by-product of it.

Just as Abram had heard God refer to Himself by a new name, so Abram is renamed, a token of his destiny:

As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I will make you the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4-5).

The name Abram meant ‘high father’ or ‘exalted father.’ This alone may have proved to be an embarrassment to Abram who had only one child and that by a slave. But now his name was changed to ‘father of a multitude.’ How could Abraham ever live this name down? By the grace of God, he would soon live up to his new name.

Most of us have had the unhappy experience of making an agreement only to find that it profited us far less than we had hoped for and been led to expect. Just the opposite is true with God’s promises. The more we learn of them, the richer the blessings they contain. Abram had been told that he would become a great nation (12:2); now he is told that in fact he will become the ‘father of a multitude of nations’ (17:4). Beyond this, he will be the father of kings (17:6). El Shaddai promised to be a God to Abram and to his descendants (17:7), among whom we must include Abram’s spiritual seed (cf. Galatians 3:16). The covenant was not only between Abraham and God, but between God and Abraham’s seed, forever.

Stipulations of the Covenant

There is a clearly defined outline of the obligations of this covenant described in chapter 17. In verse 4 God said, ‘As for Me.’ In verse 9 He said, ‘As for you.’ In verse 15 we read, ‘As for Sarai.’ Finally, in verse 20, we find, ‘As for Ishmael,’ God’s covenant is eternal and sure. The enjoyment of the blessings of the covenant is conditional. Only by keeping these conditions can man enjoy the blessings of God as guaranteed in the covenant.

The obligation upon Abraham and his descendants was that they be circumcised:

This is My covenent, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10).

In one way, circumcision seems too simple. How can God require only this one act? Let us remember that God had already said to Abraham, “Walk before Me, and be blameless” (verse 1). Circumcision was not all that Abraham was required to do—rather, it was the symbol of his relationship to God and signified what his moral conduct should be. Circumcision, for Abraham, meant that he had bound himself to God in this covenant. He looked forward to its blessings, and he also submitted to its stipulations.

Circumcision is the only act of surgery of its kind that is beneficial to mankind. More than its physical benefits, it signifies spiritual requirements as well. Symbolically, the flesh is put away. Abram had acquired a son by the use of his reproductive organ. Now he submitted it to God. No Israelite could ever engage in the sex act without being reminded of the fact that he belonged to God. Children that were begotten were to be brought up according to God’s Word. Circumcision of infant sons did not save them but evidenced the faith of the father and mother in the God of Abraham. As that young child grew up, his circumcision was a sign to him that he was different from other boys—he belonged to God. It was not the circumcision that saved the boy, but the sign which would forever remind him of what God required to enjoy the benefits of His covenant. Circumcision of the male only may have signified the special responsibility which God had assigned to the father. (This may have had particular significance to Abraham after the incident with Hagar.) Some have emphasized the similarities between baptism and circumcision and surely there are some (cf. Colossians 2:10-12). Both signify a union with God that has already occurred. Both necessitate the putting away of former things and living a life pleasing to God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Colossians 3:1-11) .

But there are rather obvious differences which must be kept in mind. Baptism is for believing adults, as an indication of their faith in God (Acts 16:33; 19:1-7).170 Circumcision was performed on infants eight days old and evidenced the faith of the parents. Baptism was a public sign, circumcision was a private sign. Baptism is for all believers, male and female, circumcision was only for the males. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant with Abraham; baptism is not the sign of the New Covenant but the Lord’s supper (cf. Luke 22:20).

A Promise for Sarah

Up to this time, God had promised Abraham a son but had not specifically identified the mother of this child. Abraham had been convinced by Sarai and circumstances that it must be Hagar. It seems as though Abraham still considered this to be the case. What a shock God’s words must have been, and what a commentary on chapter 16:

As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her (Genesis 17:15-16).

What Abraham must have originally assumed, what experience seemed to deny, was that Sarah would be the mother of his son and heir. The promise of an heir is now narrowed to Abraham and Sarai.

Abraham’s response is puzzling:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).

Before we attempt to determine whether Abraham’s response was consistent with his faith, let me point out that what is recorded is not spoken to God. This was Abraham’s inner and immediate response to God’s proclamation. Personally, I do not view this as the laugh of delight, but of disbelief. The impossibility of such a thing taking place was the cause of Abraham’s outburst. Lest we be too pious about this matter, I suspect Abraham’s response is just about what we would have done. At the same time, I do not want to suggest total unbelief on Abraham’s part. The promise was an incredible one—too much to take in one dose. Laughter is often the response to things which catch us off guard.

Abraham’s words to God also reflect a failure to fully grasp what has just been promised: “Oh that Ishmael might live before Thee!” (Genesis 17:18).

If Abraham could not believe that Sarah would bear a son to him, then his request is easily explained. He informed God that so far as he was concerned, Ishmael was satisfactory as his heir. No such wonder as another son through Sarah was necessary since a son was already in the family. In addition, the love of Abrabam for this boy is again evidenced. Why should another child be born, especially when conflict would be inevitable? Couldn’t God choose to bless Ishmael rather than to provide another child?

God’s plans would not be changed. God had purposed to give Abraham and Sarah a child and through this child to bring about His promises. No substitute son was satisfactory, especially when he was the result of self effort. Indeed, Sarah would bear a son and the spiritual blessings could only come about through him:

‘No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him’ (Genesis 17:19).

A Promise for Ishmael

While the spiritual blessings must come through Isaac, God will not overlook the love of Abraham for his son nor of His own promise to Hagar (cf. 16:10ff.). Ishmael would become a great nation, and of him would come 12 princes, but the spiritual blessings could only come through Isaac. The doctrine of divine election is to be seen in this promise.

Abraham’s Obedience

Verses 22-27 stress the important role of obedience in our Christian lives. It is precious to God. Because of this, He recorded the circumcision of Abraham, Ishmael, and all of Abraham’s household. The response of faith to divine commands is always obedience.

While there was a time lapse of 13 years from the birth of Ishmael to this appearance of God, there was only about three months from the circumcision of Abraham to the birth of Isaac.


There is little in this passage which is new to anyone who has read their Bible. Let us not forget, however, that a good deal of what was said was new to Abraham.

New revelation was simply clarification of the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It suddenly occurred to me in my study of this passage that all of Abraham’s life was primarily focused upon the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It took him a lifetime to begin to grasp the promise which initially took only three verses to record. The pinnacle of Abraham’s growth in faith is seen in his willingness to sacrifice his son (chapter 22). This act was the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to bless him through his descendants.

If it took Abraham a lifetime to grasp three verses of Scripture, how long will it take us to fathom the depth of the riches of His grace (cf. Romans 11:33-36)?

This passage helps me come to grips with the desire to learn ‘new’ truths for my own life and for my preaching. God is not so interested in us knowing new truth as He is in us grasping the few great truths of His word. How easy it is to think that we have learned some truth, only to pass on to another. In Abraham’s life, God revealed a truth, then continued to return to it, testing him, and then revealing more of that truth than he had known before. Which one of us can say that we have come to fathom the doctrine of the grace of God or of the atonement? Who would be willing to claim that he had seen all of its implications? I believe that, like Abraham, we can expect God to be at work in our lives, expanding and expounding upon the few great and central truths of Christianity.

The more I study the life of Abraham, the more I see that his was a relationship of growth. He came to learn more and more about the God Who called him. He came to a deeper and deeper understanding of the meaning of God’s Word. As he did so, he invariably drew nearer and nearer to God. There was not only a growth in Abraham’s knowledge, but in his intimacy. At first, God only spoke to Abraham (12:1). Twenty-four years later He revealed Himself to Abraham and spoke with him. Abraham, for the first time, communed with God and interacted with Him. Later, he would be called the friend of God.

You and I cannot have a static relationship with God. Not if we are truly born again. God will not allow this to happen. He may allow us to fail such as Abraham often did. He may leave us to ourselves for a time, as Abram found God silent for 13 years. But sooner or later God will break into our lethargic lives and draw us closer to Himself. That is what the Christian life is all about.

166 C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964 , pp. 4-5.

167 “This was a new title of God (Hebrew: El Shaddai). The root idea seems to be that of power and ability, and is best rendered by the phrase ‘the Mighty God,’ the addition of ‘All’ being no necessary part of the word. This special emphasis upon God’s power was very appropriate to the new message about to be given.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis : A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1946), pp. 153-154.

168 The covenant had been formally made in chapter 15. Here in chapter 17, the implementation of the covenant is referred to in verse 2. Thus the translators of the NASV render the word (literally ‘give’) ‘establish.’

169 The word perfect, or blameless, in verse one need not imply perfection, but integrity, cf. the marginal note in the NASV.

170 Some would use the Acts 16 passage to proof-text infant baptism, but this cannot be done. All who were of the jailor’s household heard the gospel (16:32); all believed (16:34); all were baptized (16:33), all rejoiced (16:34). All who were baptized were themselves believers, just as was the jailor.
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19. Marks of Maturity (Genesis 18:1-33)


I grew up in deer country and, as a young lad, I liked to hunt. We country people were always disturbed by those city folks who would come out to shoot our deer, the ones that had been eating in our orchards and nibbling in our vegetable gardens all year long. I heard of one city slicker who knew so little about hunting that he stopped at a local store to ask what one looked like. If you cannot believe this, I heard of a farmer who was so concerned about his cattle being shot during hunting season that he actually painted, in large letters, COW on his cattle.

The loss of a cow to a city dude is pathetic but not earth shaking. Many Christians, however, are pursuing the goal of maturity who fail to comprehend the marks of maturity. Some believe it is in knowledge while others equate it with a particular experience, or by the following of some kind of rules, or of the application of formulas. While such things as knowledge and experience are important, these alone are not the mark for which we are to strive.

In our study of the life of Abraham, we found him at a very low ebb in chapter 16. There, pressured by his wife, Abram’s faith failed momentarily and he attempted to produce what God had promised through human effort. A child was gotten through Hagar, but not the child of promise. Only heartache resulted for Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, because of their sin. So far as the Bible informs us, it was thirteen years until God once again spoke to Abram. Then, in Genesis chapter 17, God broke this silence and reiterated His covenant with Abraham and promised the birth of the child through Sarah in a year.

In contrast to chapter 16, chapter 18 is one of the high water marks of Abraham’s life. While his faith was not flawless, it had grown. His attitudes and actions serve as an example of maturing faith. The description of Abraham’s faith which we find in chapter 18 provides a backdrop for the failure of Lot in chapter 19, the seeds of which were sown in chapter 13. That story we save for our next lesson, but the contrast between the two men in these two chapters is clearly seen.

Let us look more closely, then, to Abraham and the marks of his maturity as they are seen in Genesis 18.

The Heavenly Trio
and Abraham’s Hospitality

While this is not the first appearance of our Lord to Abraham, it is certainly unique. Previously, God had spoken directly (12:1-3; 13:14-17), through a spokesman (14:19-20), by a vision (15:1ff), and in an appearance, one which may have been accompanied with glory and splendor (17:1ff). Now, God comes to Abraham appearing as an ordinary man, accompanied by two others who eventually are identified as angelic beings (compare 18:2,22; 19:1). We are told nothing which would distinguish these three ‘travelers’ from any others:

Now the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. And when he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; … (Genesis 18:1-2a).

Abraham, in typical eastern fashion, sat by the door of his tent in the heat of the day. Those of us in Dallas, after 40 days of 100 degree or higher temperatures, know the wilting effect of the sun at noontime. The time of day made the need for hospitality even greater, for these guests would be thirsty and weary from the heat. Abraham’s hospitality would be put to the test, for his ‘siesta’ must come to a halt in order to serve his guests.

While such hospitality is still a part of the culture of the east, Abraham’s zeal for his task is obvious:

… and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.’ And they said, ‘So do, as you have said.’ So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Quickly, prepare three measures of fine flour, knead it, and make bread cakes.’ Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it. And he took curds and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed it before them; and he was standing by them under the tree as they ate ( Genesis 18:2b-8).

Abraham’s duty was performed in no perfunctory or haphazard way. He minimized the provisions and the trouble it would take to prepare them—a little water, a piece of bread, a short rest, and a moment to wash their feet. But what was provided was a sumptuous meal. A large quantity of bread was freshly baked;171 a choice calf was butchered and prepared, curds and milk were served. No simple meal was this! And Abraham refused to sit with his guests, but stood by to serve them.172

Any of us would gladly have prepared such a feast if we had known the identity of the guests, but it would seem quite certain that Abraham was, as yet, in the dark. No doubt the writer to the Hebrews spoke of this when he wrote:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

What a scene this must have been! Abraham, standing by and serving his heavenly visitors, unaware of their identity. At the same time, beyond and below were the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with riot and revelry, enjoying their last day of the season of sin, and Lot somewhere therein, as yet unaware of what this day would bring forth.

God’s Promise
Confirmed, Yet Questioned

Nowhere are we told the precise moment it occurred to Abraham his visitors were not of this world, but we do know that by verse 27 this fact was known.

I believe that the promise reiterated in verses 9-15 identified these guests by linking them with the revelation in chapter 17.

Then they said to him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And he said, ‘Behold, in the tent.’ And he said, ‘I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh saying, “Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?” Is anything too difficult for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Sarah denied it however, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. And He said, ‘No, but you did laugh’ (Genesis 18:9-15).

It was customary in those days, as in some cultures today, for the women to be neither seen nor heard while male guests were entertained. Sarah thus prepared the bread out of the sight of the men (cf. verse 6), and now she remained inside the tent as they ate. While she carefully kept out of sight, her curiosity got the best of her. She may have peeped through the folds of the tent, though this is nowhere stated. Nevertheless she did have her ear to the door, anxious to hear the conversation outside. I doubt that any of us could have avoided such temptation either.

When asked where Sarah was, Abraham replied that she was inside the tent. The Lord then assured Abraham that Sarah would have a son next year. The substance of this promise differed little from that revealed previously as recorded in chapter 17 (verses 19,21). For Abraham, this must have clinched the identity of his guests.

It seems as though Abraham either failed to mention this previous promise to Sarah, or he failed to convince her of its certainty. I believe the words of our Lord were intended more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham’s. It was vital that she, too, have faith in God’s promise.

Sarah’s response differed very little from her husband’s,

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ (Genesis 17:17).

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ (Genesis 18:12).

Humanly speaking, a child was out of the question, for either Abraham or Sarah. Their laughter, I believe, was a combination of surprise, shock, sheer joy, and unbelief. How could such a thing be? Nevertheless even in such an absurd moment, Sarah thought of her husband with respect.173 One wonders if Sarah’s laughter was not heard outside the tent. Omniscience would have known of it, but such may not have been necessary.

Notice that a gentle rebuke is directed, at first, toward Abraham, not Sarah. “And the Lord said to Ahraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh … ’” (Genesis 18:13).

Had Abraham deliberately kept God’s promise from her? Was his faith so weak that he could not convince his wife? Somehow he must give account for his wife’s response. I find it most interesting that Sarah’s response mirrored Abraham’s. He had provided the example for her.

The words of our Lord speak as loudly to Christians today as they did to Abraham, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14a).

Here is the bedrock issue. The only reason for such unbelief is a failure to comprehend the extent of God’s ability to work in and through us.

The other side of the coin is this: were the matter of having a son not impossible, the glory for such a miracle would not have been given to God. The delay in the birth of Isaac was intended both to necessitate and to nurture the faith of Abraham and Sarah.

In addition to reassuring Abraham and (perhaps) informing Sarah of the promised child’s birth, the words of the Lord in verses 10 and 14 served to confirm the identity of the third guest as the Lord Himself. In chapter 17 the Lord had promised Abraham a child through Sarah in the first person (17:15-16,19,21). In chapter 18 the promise is again stated in the first person (verses 10, 14). In addition, this “visitor” was able to know the inner thoughts of Sarah as she laughed to herself in the tent (verse 13). No question now remained concerning the identity of the One and His two fellow travelers.

Sarah seems to have come out of the tent when Abraham was questioned concerning her unbelief. In her fear, she denied laughing. Interestingly, she did not deny her thoughts as reported by the Lord. Her denial was quickly brushed aside as untrue.

God’s Purpose
Confided in Abraham

Abraham’s hospitality was a magnificent act of Christian generosity, but it is not (in my estimation) the highest expression of Christian service in this chapter. The high point of Abraham’s spiritual life is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

Some might conclude that the sparing of the righteous was the result of Abraham’s fervent petition. I do not think so, as noble as his efforts were. I believe that God purposely revealed his intention to judge these cities in order to prompt Abraham to intercessory prayer. The account, I believe, will bear this out.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.174 While God’s purposes will be realized, His people are responsible to keep His commands.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution (verse 20). God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’175 to deal with it. The text does not mean to undermine the omniscience of God, for God does know all. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to rectify the matter. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

Abraham Intercedes with God for Sodom

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving our Lord and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (cf. 19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Undoubtedly Abraham’s primary concern was for Lot and his family. While this is not stated, it is implied (19:27-29). His appeal is based upon the justice of God. Justice would not allow the righteous to suffer the punishment due the wicked (verse 25). Abraham appealed for the sparing of Sodom in order to spare Lot,176 not so much out of concern to save the city or the wicked. Nevertheless it is possible Abraham might have hoped that with Lot spared along with the wicked, that they might come to faith in God in time.

We must admit Abraham stated his case forcefully, but I do not believe this is why God assured him that his petition would be honored.

The approach Abraham took with God was that surely, in justice, He could not treat the righteous and the wicked alike. The righteous did not deserve to perish with the wicked. So an appeal was made to spare the wicked and the righteous if a sufficient number of the righteous were to be found. Once granted, the bargaining began over how many righteous it would take to save the city.

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

Abraham waxed eloquent in these verses. A promise had been given concerning 50 righteous. The question now was whether or not this figure was firm. Abraham tested this by reducing it by five. Notice that he worded his case such that destruction brought on the city of Sodom with 45 righteous condemned the 45 because of the absence of five righteous citizens. For the lack of five the 45 would be destroyed. God granted this request, but not because of Abraham’s oratorical skillfulness.

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

The number ten should have provided the protection of Lot with a margin of safety. After all, it would seem that Lot’s family alone was large enough to meet this number. With Lot and his wife, his two unmarried daughters, his married daughters and sons-in-law, and perhaps sons also (cf. Genesis 19:12), ten righteous surely could be found. Abraham seemed satisfied, and perhaps, too, others had come to trust in God through Lot’s witness.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations. In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. Regardless, God did remember Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare the righteous. He is able and willing to do far beyond what we ask or think, as the Scriptures elsewhere teach (cf. Ephesians 3:20).


This passage gives us much insight into the matter of Christian maturity. As we look once more through these verses, several marks of maturity seem to emerge.

(1) The mature Christian becomes less dependent upon spectacular manifestations of God and more involved in intimate day-to-day fellowship. Previously, God had disclosed Himself to Abraham in more splendor and glory. This time God would not have been known, except through previous knowledge of Him and the eyes of faith. God was known by His promises, His word, rather than through a spectacular presence or splendor.

What more intimate fellowship can there be than the sharing of a meal with God?

And when the hour had come He reclined at table, and the apostles with Him. And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer’ (Luke 22:14-15).

And it come about that when He had reclined at table with them, he took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight (Luke 24:30-31).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock, if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me (Revelation 3:20).

Is it any wonder that one of the highlights of the Christian’s week to have fellowship with His Lord at His table (I Corinthians 11:23-26)? We should not always seek to find God in the spectacular, but in the more routine affairs of life (I Kings 19:11-14). Such is a sign of maturity.

I think we see this illustrated in marriage. When we first find ‘the woman of our dreams’ we want to take her to the finest restaurant or do something exciting. Sooner or later we find that we have just as much pleasure in walking in the park or sitting on the porch. The thrill is not in the place or the activity, but in the intimacy shared between two in love in whatever we do. So it is with Christian maturity.

(2) Christian maturity shifts our attention from self to others. Lot was one who continually thought of himself. Abraham’s finest hour in this chapter was devoted to serving others, first of all in the hospitality given to these ‘strangers,’ and then in the intercession he made for Sodom. Love of God must reflect itself in a concern for others (cf. Matthew 23:37-39).

(3) Christian maturity balances activity and passivity. Before in this study of Genesis we have talked about the problem of when to work and when to wait. There are times to be active and times to be passive. Abraham should not have gone into Egypt when the famine came to Canaan. Abraham should not have devised the scheme to protect his life by lying. Abraham was passive in following Sarah’s plan to produce a son.

In verses 1-8 Abraham was active in offering hospitality to the three strangers, and rightly so. This was something he could and should do. In the matter of Sodom, some might have tended to be passive. God had spoken; the city was to be destroyed; what could Abraham possibly do? He could do what you and I can do when we can do nothing else—pray. Nothing is ever beyond God’s ability to perform (18:14). If Abraham appealed according to the will of God and His character, nothing would be impossible. When any situation is beyond our control, it is not beyond God’s. Mature Christians are those who do not fail to petition God when circumstances look dark.

This, of course, does not imply that we should pray only in impossible situations. We should pray always. But mature Christians pray with the confidence that God will act according to His character, and with infinite power, and in response to our petitions. When we are helpless, we are not hopeless, for the prayers of the righteous accomplish much (cf. James 5:16).

(4) Mature Christians view prophecy as an incentive to diligent prayer and service, not a matter of mere intellectual curiosity. All too often today Christians are fascinated by prophecy as though it were a matter only to tickle our intellect rather than to touch our hearts. God’s prophetic purposes are given to incite men to action. This is the response of the mature Christian (cf. Daniel 9; II Peter 3:11-12).

(5) Mature Christians have a clear grasp of two eternal truths: the greatness of God, and the goodness of God. These truths undergird the 18th chapter of Genesis. The first is found in the question of our Lord in verse 14, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” The second is the basis for Abraham’s intercession in verse 25, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?”

The first truth rebukes all worry and lack of prayer, for “with God, nothing is impossible” (Luke 1:37). Every time we worry about the future we reject the truth that God is all-powerful.

The second truth provides an answer for life’s most distressing and perplexing problems. The God who is all-powerful is also loving, kind, just, merciful, and so on. Infinite power is joined with infinite purity.

Our first child and only son died when he was 3 1/2 months old. Several years later, while I was in seminary, the question of what happens to infants who die came up in class. Several passages were suggested, but some did not find them sufficient. Finally I shared the assurance that we found when we lost our son. While it was comforting to have scriptures to comfort us, we did not need a text to answer our every question. God is far greater than all that is revealed about Him in Scripture. The Judge of all the earth will deal justly. That was our confidence. Have you lost a loved one about whose salvation you are doubtful? Are there problems and circumstances you cannot understand? Then rest in this: our God is all powerful; nothing is impossible with Him. And furthermore, this power is always employed in justice, truth, mercy, and love. What a comfort! What an encouragement to pray!

(6) Finally, Christian maturity is evidenced when our thoughts are like God’s. Abraham did not change the mind of God; he demonstrated it. God did not suddenly alter His purposes; He informed Abraham of His purposes so that he could evidence His mercy and justice and compassion. The revelation of God’s activities in Sodom and Gomorrah was given so that Abraham’s faith could be manifested in the magnificent act of intercession. Because Abraham knew God so well, he knew that He could not destroy the wicked and the righteous together. Maturity is that point where our thoughts and actions become more like God’s.

… until we attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

Lest we begin to feel guilty at the realization that we do not measure up to Abraham, let alone our Lord, we must remember that this maturing process took many years. Let us also keep in mind that Abraham is soon to make another serious mistake (chapter 20). Nevertheless, let us press on, in God’s strength, toward maturity.

171 “In the Orient bread is never prepared at any other time than immediately before it is eaten. So bread must be prepared by Sarah for these guests. Though the guests number only three, the simple food offered will be presented in lavish abundance. “Three measures” have been computed to make four-and-a-half pecks (Skinner). What is left over can be disposed of with ease by the servants of so large an establishment as the one Abraham had.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, p. 538.

172 “The idiom ‘stand by,’ (‘madh ‘al), implies to stand by to be of service, and could even be rendered ‘and he served them.’ Cf. I Sam. l6:22; I Kings l:2; I Kings l7:l, in the expression ‘stand before.’” Ibid, p. 539.

173 Cf. I Peter 3:6.

174 Cf. Psalm 132:11,12.

175 We should first realize that Abraham’s tent was pitched on a high place which overlooked the valley in which Sodom and Gomorrah were located (cf. 19:27,28). In this sense the two angels ‘went down’ to Sodom and Gomorrah. I do not believe that this is the primary meaning of our Lord’s words here, “I will go down now and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know” (Genesis 18:21). First of all, only the two angels actually entered Sodom, not our Lord (cf. l9:1ff). Also, there was no need for God to inspect Sodom in order to learn the facts. God’s omniscience has no limits created by distance. The solution to this problem is found (to my satisfaction) in the other uses of the expression ‘to go down.’ In Genesis 11:5,7 it is used of God’s involvement with Babel and the confusion of languages. In Exodus 3:8 it spoke of God’s intervention in Egypt to deliver His people. In all these instances ‘to go down’ conveys the idea of ‘becoming personally involved’ or of ‘personal intervention.’ This God did, without physically entering Sodom, Babel, or Egypt.

176 Initially all the cities of the valley were to be destroyed (cf. 19:17, 20-21,25). God spoke to Abraham of the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:20). But Abraham appealed only for Sodom, ‘the city’ (18:24,26,28).
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20. From City Councilman to Caveman: “What a Difference a Day Makes” (Genesis 19:1-38)


Several weeks ago I was in Washington State visiting with a friend of ours who was also from Texas. We were standing by the lake on which my parents live, looking out over the lush vegetation, the magnificent fir trees, and enjoying the cool temperature. Thoughtfully my friend turned to me and asked, “Tell me again why it is that you want to go back to Dallas?”

I suppose that most of us give considerable thought to getting out of the city, away from high crime rates, people and pollution, unseemly sights, sounds and smells, crowds and congestion. There seems to be a trend of ‘back to the country’ thinking recently. Some would even feel that leaving the city is biblical.

Thus far in the book of Genesis, the city has not been viewed in the best light. Cain built the first city, naming it after his first son, Enoch, and this after he was told that he would be a vagabond and a wanderer (Genesis 4:12,17). In spite of the fact that man had been commanded to populate the earth (9:7), fallen mankind huddled together and began to build the city of Babel with its tower (11:4). Abraham was called to leave urban life to live the life of a sojourner (12:1-3).

And now Lot, who chose to live in Sodom, is about to lose everything: his wife and family, his honor, and all he has worked for. Abraham, living far from the cities of the plain, watches with grief as this destruction is wrought (19:27-29). Does this not indicate that separation involves fleeing from the city? Some think so. But Lot’s downfall did not occur in the sick and secular society of Sodom, but in a secluded cave. The problem was ultimately not with a city, but with a soul. Genesis 19 enables us to put the matter of separation into its proper perspective.

The 19th chapter of Genesis is perhaps the most tragic portion of this book for it describes the destruction of a city. Far worse, it depicts the downfall of a saint. Had it not been for these words of the Apostle Peter, we may never have known with certainty that the pathetic personality known as Lot was a true believer:

And if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds), … (II Peter 2:7-8).

If we are candid with each other, we must admit that in the church of Jesus Christ the ‘Lots’ far outnumber the ‘Abrahams.’ If we are truthful we would have to say that in our own lives there is much more of Lot evident in us than of the friend of God, Abraham. If this is true, then the description of the destruction of Lot contains a warning for every true Christian. We must approach this passage carefully and prayerfully if we are to learn Lot’s lessons from literature rather than from life.

Hospitality Versus Homosexuality

“Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, ‘Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant’s house, and spend the night, and wash your feet; then you may rise early and go on your way.’ They said however, ‘No, but we shall spend the night in the square.’ Yet he urged them strongly, so they turned aside to him and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate” (Genesis 19:1-3).

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot, who was sitting at the city gate, identified them as mortal men and as strangers, but not as messengers of destruction. Since the elders of the city sat as judges at the gates of the city (cf. Job 29:7-12), it is not unlikely that Lot, over a period of time, had gained prominence and power. Personally, it seems to be the same kind as acquired by Billy Carter. You will remember that shortly after Lot moved to Sodom the city was sacked and carried off, only to be rescued by the heroic efforts of Abram (Genesis 14:1-16). Lot’s popularity and power may well have been derived from his relationship to Abraham.

This should in no way detract from the genuine hospitality offered the two strangers. The parallel with Abraham’s hospitality in the previous chapter can hardly be accidental. This act, more than any other, evidenced the righteousness of Lot as indicated by Peter in his epistle. The apparent reluctance of the angels to accept until gently pressed by Lot is more a matter of culture and custom than anything else (cf. Luke 24:28-29).

While we are not told in concrete terms, it would seem that Lot’s persistence is motivated as much by fear for the safety of the strangers as by his generosity. Well did he know the fate of those who did not have a haven for the night. In any other city, sleeping in the city square would not have been unusual or unwise. The depravity of Sodom caused Lot to courteously compel his guests to stay with him and to share his table with them. I am inclined to believe that Lot’s meal was neither as serene nor as sumptuous as that shared at Abraham’s table.177

If Lot had hoped his guests had entered his home unnoticed, he was in for a great disappointment. Sick as it may seem, the men of the city may have had a keener eye for strangers than Lot. Their motives were corrupt and their intentions unspeakable. In a short time the entire city had gathered about Lot’s house seeking sex with the strangers. This was not the ‘broad-minded’ tolerance of a city whose laws permitted such conduct between consenting adults in private. It was not even the shameless solicitation to sin. Rather, it was rape, and that of the worst form. Imagine it, a whole city, young and old. Surely judgment was due.

Lot’s response is typical of his spiritual state; it is a strange blend of courage and compromise, of strength of character and situationalism. The crowd demanded that Lot turn over his guests, an unthinkable violation of the protection guaranteed one who comes under the roof of your house. Lot stepped outside, closing the door behind him, hoping to defuse the situation. He pleaded with them not to act wickedly, and, just as we are about to applaud his courage, he offers to surrender his two daughters to the appetites of these depraved degenerates. How unthinkable! Lot’s virtue (his concern for his guests) has become a vice (a willingness to substitute his own daughters for strangers). We may breathe a sigh of relief that the crowd refused Lot’s offer, but I must tell you that the consequences for this compromise are yet to be seen.

For twenty years Lot had lived in Sodom, yet he was still an alien to the men of the city. I suspect that the reason Lot had been left alone was that these people still remembered the military might of uncle Abraham. Had Lot been attacked they would have Abraham to deal with.

For years Lot had seemingly been content to stand aloof from the sin of this city, but not to rebuke it. Now he would play the part of the judge by speaking out against their wickedness. This was too much for the mob. Finally forced to protest their perversion, he has angered the mob. They will first deal with Lot, then with the other two.

Lot, who supposed it was his duty to save the strangers, is rescued by them. By the words they spoke, their identity and their task were revealed to Lot. Their sight either removed completely or dazzled and distorted, the men of the city groped for the door, but wore themselves out trying to find it (cf. II Kings 6:18).

Lot’s Last Stand

In those twilight hours before sunrise, Sodom saw more missionary activity from Lot than in all the previous years. His efforts were not trained upon the men of the city, however, but were a frantic and futile effort to save his own family, whom he had neglected to win.

Then the men said to Lot, ‘Whom else have you here? A son-in-law, and your sons, and your daughters, and whomever you have in the city, bring them out of the place; for we are about to destroy this place, because their outcry has become so great before the Lord that the Lord has sent us to destroy it’ (Genesis 19:12,13).

His sons-in-law178 were awakened and warned in what must have been a wild-eyed fashion. It was like trying to give the gospel to a rapidly dying man. No doubt Lot’s demeanor did suggest something very bizarre. They took it all for some kind of joke:

And Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-low, who were to marry his daughters, and said, ‘Up, get out of this place, for the Lord will destroy the city.’ But he appeared to his sons-in-law to be jesting (Genesis 19:14).

Why? Why would they not take Lot seriously? Notice that we are not told that they refused to believe Lot so much as they did not even take him seriously. There seems to be only one possible explanation: Lot had never mentioned his faith before. His words were not a repetition of his life-long warnings of sin and Judgment—they are something totally new and novel. What a rebuke to the witness of Lot. It is one thing to warn men and have them reject our message. It is far worse for them not even to consider our words as spoken seriously.179

Morning came without one new convert, let alone one righteous soul who would flee the wrath of God. Time was up. The angels ordered Lot to take his wife and his two daughters and get out of the city before judgment fell.

The unbelief of the citizens of Sodom is to some degree predictable, but the reluctance of Lot is incredible. Never before has anyone ever tried so hard to keep from being saved. There are several reasons why Lot may have been so hesitant and foot-dragging throughout the entire rescue. First, Lot in his carnal state may not have been fully convinced of the certainty and severity of the judgment. Second, he may have hoped by his delay, to stall for time, in order to preserve friends and family knowing that judgment could not come until he had departed (cf. verse 22). Third, Lot was so attached to this ‘present world’ of friends, family, and things that he just could not bear the thought of leaving it. In the final analysis Lot was literally dragged from the city by the angel.

And when morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.’ But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hands of his daughters, for the compassion of the Lord was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city (Genesis 19:15-16).

When given specific instruction to flee to the mountains as far from Sodom as possible (verse 17), Lot again resisted and plead for a less painful program:

But Lot said to them, ‘Oh no, my lords! Now behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have magnified your lovingkindness, which you have shown me by saving my life; but I cannot escape to the mountains, lest the disaster overtake me and I die; now behold, this town is near enough to flee to, and it is small. Please, let me escape there (is it not small?) that my life may be saved’ (Genesis 19:18-20).

What a difference between the intercession of Abraham and the prayer (or plea) of Lot. Abraham prayed for the preservation of the cities for the sake of the righteous, particularly Lot and his family. Abraham had no selfish interest at stake. To the contrary, removing the peoples of the cities might have appeared to have left the land open for Abraham to possess.180 Lot plead for the city of Zoar (previously Bela, Genesis 14:2), not for the sake of those who lived there, but for his own convenience. If judgment must fall, could God not make it easy on Lot? After all, wasn’t it just a little city? And so the city was spared (verse 21).

Fire and Brimstone

Sunrise came just as Lot, with his wife and daughters, approached Zoar (verse 23). Safely out of reach of the devastation, the Lord rained down fire and brimstone from heaven upon the cities of the valley. Many suggestions have been made as to the mechanics employed to bring about this destruction.181 While I believe that natural elements such as lightening, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions, probably were involved, this makes it no less a miracle. This was judgment from the Lord (19:13- 4; 24-25), and He was in full control of its extent and timing (verses 22,24-25). The devastation included the four towns and even the soil on which they were built. It was a picture of complete devastation:

‘All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows on it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His anger and in His wrath’ (Deuteronomy 29:23).

The death of Lot’s wife is tragic indeed. She died, it seems, within steps of safety. They had virtually arrived at the city of Zoar. While Lot hastened on, Mrs. Lot lingered. Perhaps her mother’s heart was touched by the death of her sons and daughters, or it may have been the women’s club or their new townhouse, or even the Ethan Allen furnishings they had just paid off. One thing is certain, her looking back differed from Lot’s actions only in degree, not in kind. Her heart, like Lot’s, was in Sodom. She lingered behind, then looked back for only a moment, but it was too late.182 The destruction meant for Sodom struck her as well, and only steps from safety and those she loved. Regardless of her motive, she directly disobeyed a clear command of the angelic messenger (cf. 19:17).

God Answers Abraham

Verses 27-29 serve several purposes. First, they reveal the heart of Abraham in contrast to the self-interest of Lot. Abraham, like God, did not delight in wickedness nor in the destruction of sinners. Both had compassion on the righteous. Abraham had made his appeal to God. I do not think that he went to that same spot as the day before in order to pray, but to watch God answer his prayers. There was no casual ‘what will be, will be’ attitude, but genuine concern over the outcome.

Secondly, these verses underscore the real reason Lot was spared. While a just God would not destroy the righteous with the wicked (18:25), the stress here is that ‘the prayers of a righteous man availeth much’ (James 5:16). It was Abraham’s faithfulness and not Lot’s which resulted in Lot’s deliverance. Humanly speaking, there was little reason for sparing Lot other than the character of God and the concern of Abraham over his fate.

You Can Take Lot Out of Sodom …

While Lot plead with the angels to spare Zoar, he soon left that city in fear. Fear of what? Some have suggested it was a fear of the people of Zoar due to the possibility of retaliation. It may have been a fear of future judgment falling on that city which likely was as wicked as the others.

I am inclined to look at it a little differently. After a period of reflection, Lot may have come to the realization that his having settled in Sodom was the cause of all his troubles. It had cost him his wealth, his wife and most of his family. To stay in Zoar or in any wicked city might result in even more destruction and judgment. And hadn’t God commanded him to flee to the mountains? And so Lot determined to ‘get away from it all.’ Away from the city and its wickedness. Away from the world. Lot sought safety in a cave rather than a city.

One nagging question haunts me. Why didn’t Lot go to be with Abraham? There was surely no problem of too much prosperity now. And didn’t Abraham live in the mountains far from the city? Lot was free to choose where he settled, provided he did not stay in one of the condemned cities when judgment came. I believe that Lot was not up to facing his uncle and fessing up to his folly. With Abraham there could have been fellowship, encouragement, and perhaps the possibility of some God-fearing husbands for his daughters from among Abraham’s entourage.

The remaining verses depict the final state of Lot, the carnal Christian. He is passive and pathetic. In a drunken stupor he became the father of two nations, both of which were to be a plague to Israel. Lot, and those who came from him, were a pain to Abraham and his descendants.

In Lot’s shoes we might have concurred with his decision to forsake the city for a cave. Lot was finally ready to deal with worldliness. He did so by departing from the world. The only problem with this was that while Lot was out of Sodom, Sodom was not out of Lot. Monasticism has never been the solution to materialism; seclusion is no substitute for sanctification. The world without is not nearly so plaguing as the world within (cf. Romans 7).

To Lot’s daughters, the cave was no temporary dwelling place, a place of shelter in the time of storm. It became evident that for Lot it was a permanent dwelling place, home. His daughters also began to conclude that their father was not trying to protect himself so much as them. He would lose no more daughters to wicked men. And so it seemed that Lot would perish without a seed unless the girls did something about it themselves. They concluded, “… there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of the earth” (Genesis 19:31).

Surely this bleak picture was exaggerated. They saw no normal means for them to marry and bear children. While their perception was undoubtedly wrong, it brought them to the added error of deducing that they would have to resort to unusual (perhaps it would be more accurate to say immoral, since incest was probably not unusual in Sodom) means to preserve the line of their father. This reasoning resulted in a sinful plot.

At Lot’s age, action would have to be taken quickly. Evidently the daughters determined that Lot would never knowingly submit to such a scheme, so they never mentioned it to him. Something had to be done to weaken his resistance; wine would adequately perform this task, While Lot was in a drunken stupor the first daughter, and then the second, went in to him and became pregnant. At best, Lot was only partially aware of what had taken place until it was too late.

Two nations were born of this incestuous relationship, Moab and Ammon. While God dealt kindly with these nations because of their relationship to Abraham (cf. Deuteronomy 2:19), they were a continual hindrance to the godly conduct of the Israelites. Kidner says of these two nations:

Moab and Ammon (37f), was destined to provide the worst carnal seduction in the history of Israel (that of Baal-Peor, Nu. 25) and the cruelest religious perversion (that of Molech, Lv. 18:21)183

Eventually, they would suffer the judgment of God as did Sodom and Gomorrah:

‘Therefore, as I live,’ declares the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘Surely Moab will be like Sodom, and the sons of Ammon like Gomorrah—a place possessed by nettles and salt pits, and a perpetual desolation. The remnant of My people will plunder them, and the remainder of My nation will inherit them’ (Zephaniah 2:9).


Several features of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah make it a most disturbing and challenging passage. Let us consider these carefully.

(1) Similarity. The similarities between Sodom and our society today are distressing. Immorality was rampant and perversion had become the norm. Homosexuality is always considered sin in the Bible (cf. Romans 1:24ff), but here it is a symptom of a society so sick with sin that it must be judged. Like a raging cancer, it must be cut out before it spreads further.

I would like to suggest that Sodom has nothing over our society. Homosexuality, while only one symptom of sin, is not only tolerated but is proudly proclaimed and openly advocated as an alternate lifestyle. Movies and other media glamorize sin, and profiteers make their fortunes on it. Now, by means of cable television, the filth of Sodom is being piped into our own living rooms. What remains to be seen in our society which was not in Sodom? I know of nothing.

Sodom stands in Scripture as a symbol of evil and depravity. It also stands as a warning of future judgment (Deuteronomy 29:23; 32:32; Isaiah 1:9-10; 3:9; Jeremiah 49:18). Great as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was, it will not compare to the destruction of those who have had greater light through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city (Matthew 10:15).

The similarity of our society to that of Sodom warns us that judgment is near. The eternal wrath of God has already been meted out on the cross of Christ on Calvary. Jesus Christ became sin for us; He bore our punishment on the cross.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isaiah 53:4-6).

And He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21).

By faith in Christ’s death in our place, we will not face the wrath of God:

For God has not destined us (true believers in Christ Jesus) for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us … (I Thessalonians 5:9,10a).

But those who refuse the free gift of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ must bear the penalty of their sins, eternal separation from God:

… dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, … ( II Thessalonians 1:8-9).

Then, too, the similarity between Lot and many professing Christians cannot be overlooked. Lot was, at best, a half-hearted Christian. In New Testament terminology he may have been a believer, but not a disciple (cf. Luke 9:57-62). Lot tried unsuccessfully to keep one foot in the world and the other in the company of the faithful. He was caught up with materialism, concerned more with his own interests than with Abraham’s (cf. Genesis 13 with Philippians 2:1-9). He chose the best land for himself and left the rest to Abraham. He chose the settled life of the city, while Abraham chose the life of a sojourner. Lot jeopardized his family for the chance of financial gain. Lot was a man who was worldly, lukewarm and weak in his convictions.

Is there really any difference between Lot and most of us? I must confess that there seems to be more of Lot in my life than of Abraham.

What is the answer to our dilemma? How can we effectively deal with our own complacency? The solution, I believe must be found in the differences between Lot and Abraham. Lot, at best, was halfhearted in his relationship with God. Abraham had a growing intimacy, evidenced by his intercession for Lot. Lot cared mostly for himself, even to the point of sacrificing his daughters. Abraham cared more for others, evidenced by his generosity in giving Lot the choice of the land and in interceding with God for Lot’s deliverance. Lot was a man who failed to learn from divine discipline. When he moved to Sodom and then was kidnapped, he returned to the same place without any apparent change in action or attitude. Abraham made many mistakes (sins), but he learned from them. Lot was a man who lived only for the present, while Abraham was a stranger and a pilgrim on the earth. He chose to do without many earthly pleasures for the joys of greater and more lasting blessings from God.

(2) Security. Having stressed the failures of Lot we must not lose sight of the fact that he was a saved man (II Peter 2:7-8). Even in the midst of his failures, God spared him from judgment, albeit kicking and screaming all the way. What a picture of the security of the saint, even the most carnal.

The reason for Lot’s security, as ours, is not that he was faithful, for he was not. Lot’s salvation was clearly in spite of himself, not because of his works. What, then, was the basis of his security? So far as our text is concerned, the answer is simple. Lot was saved, not for his own sake, but for Abraham’s. It was not Lot’s faithfulness, but Abraham’s which delivered him from destruction:

Thus it came about, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, that God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in which Lot lived (Genesis 19:29).

The same principle holds true for Christians today. We are saved, not on account of our faithfulness, but because of the One Who intercedes for us, Jesus Christ, our great high priest:

… who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).

Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them (Hebrews 7:25).

What a wonderful assurance. We will be saved, not because of our worthiness, but His, Who not only died to save us, but Who continually intercedes for us before the Father:

My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; … (I John 2:1).

Is our security to become a source of slothfulness, or an incentive to sin? Far from it (cf. Romans 6:1ff; I Peter 2:16). While Genesis 19 informs us that Lot was delivered from God’s judgment, he was not kept from the painful consequences of his sins. He lost all his possessions, most of his family, and his honor. Sin never pays! Christians may go their own willful way, but they cannot enjoy it for long.

(3) Separation. Lot’s life serves as a powerful exposition on the doctrine of separation. As I see it, there are two phases of Lot’s life, each tending toward a particular extreme.

The first phase of Lot’s life evidenced a period of identification with the sinner. Separation here manifested itself in not practicing the sins which were generally accepted and acted out. Our Lord, too, identified with sinners, and was criticized for it:

And when the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax-gatherers, they began saying to His disciples, ‘Why is He eating and drinking with tax-gatherers and sinners?’ And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:16,17).

While both our Lord and Lot lived in close proximity to sinners without participating in their sins, the difference between the two was that our Lord spoke clearly of sin and of salvation while Lot remained silent. Christians are to be salt in a wicked society. The essence of salt is that it is distinctive. Lot lost his saltiness in the society about him. I suppose the truth is he simply lost his nerve. There was seemingly no sense of danger or urgency for him. Our Lord clearly came to save sinners.

By living in Sodom without being salty, Lot not only failed to save others but he lost his own family. Here is the great tragedy of Lot’s life in Sodom—his children (save two) and his wife, were lost there. If we do not seek to save others, we may even lose our own families. Many, in the process of trying to minister to others, have lost their own families to the world.

The sin of Lot was not being in Sodom, but his motivation for being there. Living in the world is not wrong, but being of the world (John 17:15-16). Living in a crooked and perverse generation is not wrong, but failing to proclaim the message of sin, righteousness and judgment is. Lot’s problem was not so much his living in Sodom, but his lack of salt.184

The later chapter in the life of Lot was lived out in a cave. Here Lot seems to have tried to deal with the world by seclusion. Monasticism has always been a tempting alternative to mingling with sinners. Let me remind you that Lot did not fail in the city as badly as he did in that cave. It was there that drunkenness numbed his senses enough for him to be lured into incest with his daughters.

Lot’s failure in that cave was far more of his own making than most of us would like to admit. It was not just that his daughters had learned so much sin in Sodom—they were still virgins you will recall (19:8). The real problem was not with Sodom, but with Lot. His daughters simply carried out that which they had learned from their own father. These same two girls stood inside the door as they overheard those words from their father,

Now, behold, I have two daughters who have not had relations with man; please let me bring them out to you, and do to them whatever you like; only do nothing to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof (Genesis 19:8).

From Lot, his two daughters learned that morality must sometimes be sacrificed to practicality. Lot was willing to turn over his own daughters (who were as yet sexually pure, not corrupted by the sins of Sodom) to the Sodomites instead of two strangers. They learned from Lot that morality must sometimes be set aside in emergencies. Once they saw their father’s plight (and their own) as an emergency, incest was no longer a moral problem, for morality must yield to practicality in emergencies.

Many of us, as fathers, are greatly concerned about the world in which our children live. The temptations are infinitely greater. But in our concern for what is happening in the cities, let us not think we can save our children by restricting them to a cave. For in the cave, they are still being influenced by us. Let us be mindful from the tragedy which occurred in Lot’s family that many of the sins of our children are not learned from the world, but from the fathers.

You see, the Christian doctrine of separation must evidence a delicate balance between two equally dangerous extremes. One extreme is to overly stress identification with the world—but without a clear proclamation of the gospel. The other is to seek security in seclusion from the world. This is not the Christian’s solution to sin either:

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one (I Corinthians 5:9-11).

Lot attempted to live his life in a city and then in a cave. We cannot become one with the world, but neither are we to flee from it. The proper balance between the city of Sodom and the cave is the tent of Abraham. We are to live in the world, but without becoming attached to it or conformed to it. We are to be strangers and pilgrims. As Peter expressed this under inspiration,

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation (I Peter 2:11-12).

May God help us to live in the world without becoming a part of it, or it a part of us. As the writer in the Proverbs expressed it:

The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish ( Proverbs 14:11).

177 While this is by no means a critical issue, several considerations incline me to this conclusion. First, it was unleavened bread that was served by Lot, but not (seemingly) by Abraham. Unleavened bread was prepared by the Israelites in haste before their exodus from Egypt. Perhaps it was late in the evening and there was no time for leavened bread to rise. But perhaps Lot, knowing the men of the city, did not feel a leisurely meal to be appropriate. When he spoke of them getting up and starting early in the morning (verse 2), was he anxious to send them off before others were awake? In such a case, Lot would be eager to serve a quick meal and get them bedded down for the night. Then, too, the Hebrew word translated ‘feast’ can also mean ‘drink.’ In most instances, this would describe an elaborate feast at which one would drink; sometimes it could even degenerate to a drinking bout. Often, it was a wedding feast. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) renders the passage so that it suggests Lot prepared his guests something to drink and unleavened bread. The NIV does not go this far, but does not choose to portray a feast either: “He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, . . . ” The Amplified Old Testament attempts to convey the literal sense by rendering it, “And he made them a dinner (with drinking), and had unleavened bread which he baked; and they ate.” All of this at least leaves room for the suggestion that Lot’s hospitality was hastier and, perhaps, not as sumptuous as that of Abraham’s table.

178 ‘Sons-in-law,’ verse, 14, is understood either as those who were married to Lot’s daughters, or those who were engaged (‘were taking’) to them. If the latter were correct, the daughters would not be those two who were still at home, who ‘have not had relations with man’ (verse 8). These two ‘engaged’ daughters would have gone with their parents to Zoar and then with Lot to the cave. One can see how they would reason that marriage was no longer an option. If the former were the case, these ‘sons-in-law’ had married other daughters of Lot and both the sons-in-law and the daughters were destroyed in the judgment of Sodom. Thus, Lot’s failure would be of even greater magnitude. Verse 15 seems to support the view that Lot had two unmarried daughters and others who had married, when it says, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, who are here, . . . ” It would thus imply that there were others not present with Lot, but rather with their husbands.

179 Ironically the Hebrew word kematzehak, which is literally translated “like one who was jesting” (margin, NASV) is the same root from which the name Isaac is derived, meaning ‘laughter.’

180 The question may be raised, “Why did God render the land unusable by the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah?” One might suppose that God would have, by this, removed the inhabitants of the valley and given the land to Abraham. God’s purpose, however, had been revealed to Abraham in chapter 15 (verses 13-16). Abraham was not to possess the land in his lifetime, but to be a ‘stranger and pilgrim’ on the earth. In this, his faith was tested and strengthened. Not until the fourth generation would Abraham’s descendants possess the land. Perhaps it was due to the wide-spread devastation of the land that Abraham moved on toward the Negev (20:1).

181 Bush has an extensive discourse on the destruction of Sodom (I, pp. 314-325), at the end of which he concludes, “The catastrophe, therefore, if our interpretation be admitted, was marked with the united horrors of earthquake, and volcano, the latter described as a conflagration from heaven, forming altogether such a scene as baffles conception, and such as the eye of man never witnessed before.” George Bush, Notes on Genesis, Reprint, (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., 1976), I, p. 325.

182 “. . . she may well have been overtaken by the poisonous fumes and the fiery destruction raining down from heaven. . . . But once overcome, there she lay, apparently not reached by the fire but salt-encrusted by the vapors of the Salt Sea. Lot and his daughters could not have seen this at the time, for to look back would have involved them in the same destruction. Their love for the one lost will, no doubt, have driven them after the havoc of the overthrow had subsided to visit the spot, and there they will have found the ‘pillar of salt.’ For the words watteh (‘and she become’) in no wise in themselves demand an instantaneous conversion into such a pillar.” H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 571-572.

183 Derek Kidner, Genesis An Introduction and Commentary (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 136.

184 A word of caution should be given here. In the history of Israel, God raised up prophets to speak to wicked cities and to warn them of the wrath to come (e.g. Jonah). To my knowledge, however, few, if any, who had such ministries had families which they exposed to the sins which they condemned. There may well be cases where singleness is not only advisable, but imperative. Let us be careful that our ministries are not at the expense of our families.
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21. Don’t Ever Say Never (Genesis 20:1-18)


Many Christians are concerned about their “testimony” before the world, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. While it is important for Christians to live a life which is consistent with the will and the Word of God (cf. Romans 6:1ff; Ephesians 4:1ff; Colossians 3:1ff, I Peter 1:13ff), we sometimes misapply this truth so as to avoid our responsibilities. For example, I know that others, like myself, are inclined to keep silent about our faith in Jesus Christ because we fear that our testimony has been so poor others will not want to trust in Christ. Since the message of our life fails to conform to that of our lips, we keep silent about our faith in Christ.

While we should strive to live in such a way as to create an interest in that which makes us unique as Christians (Matthew 5:13-16; Colossians 4:5-6; I Peter 3:13ff), our failures do not necessarily prevent others from being drawn to Jesus Christ as their Savior. I know of a man in our church who was saved through the testimony of a drunken sailor. My friend, then an unbeliever, rebuked a drunken Christian for his conduct. The drunk protested that even though a discredit to his Lord, he was nonetheless eternally saved and secure. My friend could not imagine how such a thing could be so. Because of the certainty of this drunken Christian about his spiritual security, my friend studied the Scriptures for himself to see if this could be true. As a result, he was saved as well, to some degree through the “testimony” of the drunken sailor.

While this kind of conduct as a Christian is in no way recommended or smiled upon, the Bible indicates that even at very low points in our Christian experience God can use His saints to draw others to Himself. Such was the case in the life of Abraham as described in Genesis 20.

God had disclosed to Abraham that he would be the father of a son born through Sarah (17:15-19; 18:10). Abraham, upon hearing of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, interceded for the cities on behalf of the righteous who dwelt in them (18:22ff). God assured him that if only ten righteous could be found, the cities would be spared (18:32). While the righteous were not to be found and the cities were not spared, Lot and his daughters were delivered from destruction (chapter 19). The devastation of Sodom and Gomorrah took place under the watchful eye of Abraham, looking on from afar (19:27-29).

Chapters 17-19 of Genesis have depicted a high point in the life of the patriarch. Here is the man of faith and intercession we expect to find in the pages of holy writ. The man in chapter 20 is a far cry from our expectations for a patriarch and a prophet. He is a man compared to whom Abimelech looks saintly. In spite of this sad state of affairs, the grace of God is seen for the marvel it is, not so much in spite of Abraham’s failure of faith as because of it. Abraham is an unwilling witness to the wonderful grace of God Who saves and sanctifies men and women in spite of themselves.

Abimelech Is Restrained

For an unspecified reason185 Abraham left Mamre, wandering southward near Kadesh and then northwest to Gerar, not far from the Mediterranean Sea in the land of the Philistines.186 At Gerar, Abraham repeated a sin committed very early in his life as a follower of God (cf. 12:10ff). Once again, he passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, which resulted in her being taken into the harem of Abimelech,187 king of Gerar.188

Liberal critics hasten to classify chapters 12, 20, and 26 as three different accounts of the same event. Such a position cannot be taken seriously : the text is considered reliable. The similarities are striking and purposely underscored. Nevertheless, the differences between chapters 12 and 20 are significant. Some of these are:

Chapter 12

Chapter 20

Place: Egypt

Place: Gerar

Time: Early in Christian Life

Time: Late in Christian Life

King: Pharaoh

King: Abimelech

Abraham’s response to rebuke: Silence

Abraham’s response to rebuke: Excuses

Result: Abraham left Egypt

Result: Abraham stayed in Gerar

We have every reason to conclude that there are three events, similar in some details but decidedly different in many particulars. The similarities are intended to be instructive. Even mature saints are plagued with the sins of younger days (chapter 20), and “the sins of the fathers” surely are visited on the sons (as in chapter 26).

The situation here is far more critical than in chapter 12. First, God has clearly revealed to Abraham and Sarah that together they will bear a son through whom the covenant promises will be realized. More than this, the conception of the child must be near at hand, for he was said to have been born within the space of a year (17:21; 18:10). Human reasoning would have considered the dangers in chapter 20 to be minimal since Sarah was long past the childbearing age (17:17; 18:11,13). But the eye of faith would have seen the matter in an entirely different light. Was Abraham’s faith at a low ebb? It must be so.

Abimelech was restrained by God in a two-fold fashion. First, God warned him in the strongest terms: “Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is married” (Genesis 20:3).

It becomes clear that death will only follow if Abimelech’s actions are not reversed and Sarah returned, untouched, to Abraham. God told Abimelech he was as good as dead if he did not act decisively and according to God’s directions.

Secondly, Abimelech and all of his household were physically restrained from sinning against Sarah, even if they had wished to:

Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also kept you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore restore the man’s wife, for he is a prophet and he will pray for you, and you will live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.… And Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his maids, so that they bore children. For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:6-7, 17-18).

By means of some undisclosed physical malady, no one in the royal household was able to conceive. Further, it seems that sexual activity was prohibited altogether. This would ensure Sarah’s purity, as well as prevent the birth of a child by Abimelech. The revelation Abimelech received in the dream thus explained the reason for the plague which had fallen upon his household. This also sheds light on the great fear of the male servants in Abimelech’s household. They, too, suffered from this affliction which prohibited normal sexual activity. In a culture that placed a high value on many offspring and virility, the situation would have been taken as critical. And so it was.

While the imminent danger for Abimelech and his household is emphasized, so also is his innocence:

Now Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, wilt Thou slay a nation, even though blameless? Did he not himself say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this’ (Genesis 20:4-5).

Abimelech, unlike Abraham, was guiltless in this matter. His actions were based upon purity of motive and upon the untrue statements of Abraham and Sarah.189 God acknowledged the innocence of the king but made it clear that apart from divine intervention he would have committed a grave offense. The way Abimelech handled this matter now would determine his destiny. To delay or disobey meant certain death.

Strange as it may seem, Abimelech stood head and shoulders above Abraham in this passage. We must admit that there is no sin into which the Christian cannot fall in times of disobedience and unbelief. At such times, unbelievers may put the Christian to shame by their integrity and morality (cf. I Corinthians 5:1ff).

The wonder of this passage is not the fact that Abraham could regress so far in his Christian growth and maturity. From my own experience I am ashamed to admit that this is entirely believable. While the faithlessness of Abraham comes as no surprise, the faithfulness of God to Abraham at this time of failure is amazing.

Had I been God, the last thing I would have considered would be to reveal my relationship to Abraham. Even if my own character demanded that I remain faithful to my promises, I would not have disclosed to Abimelech that Abraham was a believer, albeit a carnal one. And yet God disclosed the fact that Abraham was the object of His special care. More than this, Abraham was identified as a prophet (verse 7).190 He was God’s representative and the intermediary through whom Abimelech must be healed.

This must have left Abimelech shaking his head. How could Abraham be a man of God at the same time he was a liar? Abimelech, however, was not given any opportunity to take punitive action in spite of the problems Abraham’s disobedience had brought upon the king’s household. Abraham was the source of Abimelech’s suffering, it was true, but he was also the solution. Abimelech and Abraham both found themselves in a very awkward position.

Abraham Is Rebuked

Abimelech wasted no time making matters right before God. He arose early in the morning and reported the substance of his dream to those of his household. Because they were affected along with Abimelech, they greatly feared (verse 8). They would see to it that the king’s orders were followed to the letter.

After informing his servants, Abimelech summoned Abraham. It was not a pleasant situation, and Abraham was sternly rebuked for his deception:

What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done to me things that ought not to be done (Genesis 20:9).

Abimelech had been wronged by Abraham. He had not only done what was wrong in the eyes of God, but also in the eyes of pagans. Abraham, who was to be a source of blessing (12:2,3), had become a proverbial pain in the neck to those in whose land he sojourned.

Twenty-five years before this, Abraham had committed a nearly identical sin. In that case, we do not know how Pharaoh learned the truth, nor are any of Abraham’s excuses recorded. Pharaoh seemed interested only in getting Abraham as far from his presence as possible. Abimelech did not ask Abraham to leave, perhaps out of fear of what God might do for such lack of hospitality. Abraham’s excuses, weak as they are, are reported to us:

And Abraham said, “Because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife; and it came about, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is the kindness which you will show to me: everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother”’” (Genesis 20:11-13).

Three reasons are stated for Abraham’s deception, but none of them satisfactorily explain his actions in Gerar. First, Abraham acted out of fear. He feared that because of Sarah’s beauty he would be killed, and she would be taken as a wife by violence. This fear was based upon a faulty theological premise: God is only able to act when men are willing to obey. God could save Abraham only in a place where He was known and feared by men. The inference is that where ungodly men are, God’s hand is shortened and unable to save.

Such theology was due more to unbelief than to ignorance. It was the same fear Abraham had twenty-five years before. According to Abraham’s theology, God could not save him from the hand of Pharaoh either, but He did! Abraham failed because of unbelief, not because he was uninformed.

Incidentally, this unbelief had to disregard specific revelation, for shortly before this incident God had twice told Abraham that Sarah would become pregnant and bear a child within the year (17:19,21; 18:10). Could Abraham willingly encourage Sarah to go to bed with Abimelech, believing that she soon was to become pregnant and have a child? I think not. If Sarah was thought to be “over the hill” and unable to have children, her becoming a part of the king’s harem might not be taken so seriously. Abraham might have thought the laugh would be on Abimelech for taking as his wife a woman who was old enough to be his mother.

One more observation must be made concerning Abraham’s fears for his own safety. His conduct differs little from that of Lot in Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot, by inviting the two strangers under his roof, assured them of protection. Rather than break this commitment, he was willing to sacrifice the purity of his two virgin daughters and give them over to the men outside his door. Abraham, fearing for his own safety, was willing to give over his wife to the king (or any other citizen of Gerar) to protect himself from harm.

The second reason for Abraham’s deception is even less satisfactory. His statement, though a lie, was technically factual. Sarah was, indeed, his sister, the daughter of his father, but not his mother (verse 12). Facts can be and often are used in such a way as to convey falsehood. Statistics are sometimes employed in this way: You have your head in the freezer and your feet in the oven, but, on the average, you are comfortable. His sister, indeed. She was his wife. Abraham tried to defend himself by technicalities but not by truthfulness.

The third reason I have labeled “tradition.” When all else fails to justify the way we have acted, we can always fall back on these well worn words: “But we’ve always done it that way before.” That’s what Abraham was saying in substance. His actions before Abimelech were not to be taken personally—they were merely company policy. This policy had been established many years ago. Why should it be set aside after so many years?

Having looked at each of the three lines of Abraham’s defense, let us consider his arguments as a whole. There is absolutely no indication of acceptance of responsibility for sin, nor of sorrow or repentance. While his arguments fail to satisfy us, as they did not impress Abimelech, they did seem to satisfy Abraham.

This observation did not come to me immediately. In fact, one of my friends suggested it to me after I delivered this message in the first service. But he is absolutely right. Abraham here is like one of our children who is caught dead to rights. They are sorry they are caught but not repentant for the wrong they have done.

It also explains the repetition of this sin by Abraham and, later, by his son Isaac. Abraham never said to himself, “I’ll never do that again,” either in Egypt or in Gerar. In both cases Abraham escaped with his wife’s purity and with a sizeable profit to boot. So far as I can tell, Abraham never saw his deceptiveness as a sin. Consequently, it kept cropping up in later generations.

I do not think that Abimelech was impressed with Abraham’s explanation. Nevertheless, God had severely cautioned him, and he knew that Abraham was the only one who could intercede for him to remove the plague which prohibited the bearing of children. Because of this, restitution was made.

First, Sarah was given back to her husband Abraham along with sheep, oxen, and servants (verse 14). Then, to Abraham the invitation was extended for him to settle in the land wherever he chose (verse 15). Finally, a thousand pieces of silver were given to Abraham as a symbol of Sarah’s vindication (verse 16). Her return to Abraham, therefore, was not because she was found to be unacceptable or undesirable.191

Abimelech Is Restored

What a humbling experience it must have been for Abraham to intercede on behalf of Abimelech. A deep sense of unworthiness must have (or at least should have) come over him. It was surely not his righteousness which was the basis for divine healing. As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I must confess to you that I frequently experience feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Prophets, my friends, are not necessarily more pious, and neither are preachers! The greatest danger that those in positions of prominence or power face is that they begin to believe that their usefulness is based upon their faithfulness and deeper spirituality. Any time that we are used of God, it is solely because of the grace of God.

While this was a tragic time in the life of God’s chosen, it was necessary, for it prepared the way for the following chapter in which the promised child is given. God’s promise to Abraham was kept because God is faithful, not because Abraham was faithful. “Every good and perfect gift,” in the words of Scripture, “cometh from above” (James 1:17). Such was the case with Isaac.

When Abraham prayed, the wombs of Abimelech’s household were opened so that they once again bore children. So Sarah’s womb was to be opened as well. The promised son was soon to be born.


Abraham’s failure, to be sure, occurred in a culture and time that is foreign to Christians today. In spite of this, his problems were no different than ours (cf. James 5:17), and the principles found in Genesis 20 are as true today as they were centuries ago. God has not changed, and neither have men. Take a few moments to consider the lessons we can learn from this incident in the life of Abraham.

(1) The fallibility of the saints. I know there are those who teach sinless perfectionism, but I cannot fathom why. The old man, while positionally dead, is very much alive and well for the time being. While we should be living out the victorious life of Romans 8, most of us find ourselves continually in chapter 7. Such was true of Abraham, the friend of God, also.

Privileged position does not preclude failure. Abraham was God’s elect, God’s chosen, but he still floundered and failed. Abraham was God’s prophet, but that did not make him more pious than others. Abraham prospered both in Egypt and in Gerar, but it was not because he attained a higher level of spirituality. The most dangerous doctrine for the Christian is that which suggests that Christians can be above temptation and failure in their Christian lives, even after years of service or in a privileged position.

(2) Our disobedience is often camouflaged by excuses transparent to all but ourselves. Abraham’s three excuses are easily seen to be a sham, and yet variations on these three themes serve as justification for much wrong that we do.

The first is situational ethics, which is a system of ethics based upon the denial of either the existence of God or His ability to act in man’s behalf. Situationalism always posits a dilemma in which there is no alternative other than a sinful act. In such cases we are forced to decide on the basis of the lesser of two evils.

First Corinthians 10:13 dogmatically asserts that the premise on which situationalism is based is wrong. It teaches that God never places the Christian in a circumstance where he or she must sin. The outcome which we dread is always a figment of our fearful imagination, and not of reality. Abraham feared that someone would kill him to take away his wife. It never happened, nor was there any reported situation where this was even a remote possibility. Faith in a God Who is sovereign in every situation keeps us from flirting with sinful acts which allegedly will deliver us from emergency situations—ones in which godliness must be put on the shelf.

The second is dealing in technicalities rather than truth. The information Abraham gave to Abimelech was totally factual (verse 12). Sarah was his sister. But what Abraham failed to report made it all a lie. She was his wife, as well as his sister.

How often we allow people to draw the wrong conclusions or impressions by withholding evidence. We want to give the impression we are spiritual when we are not. We try to appear happy when our heart is breaking. We try to look sophisticated when we are desperate and despondent. Faith is facing up to reality and dealing openly with others, even when the truth may appear to put us in jeopardy or may make us vulnerable.

The third, and very common, excuse is that of tradition. “We’ve always done it that way.” That was Abraham’s excuse. All that it indicates is our persistence in sin. As my uncle used to say of someone who always had a good word for everyone, “She would say of the Devil, ‘He’s persistent.’” Tradition is not wrong, but neither does it make any practice right.

(3) Our failures will not keep a person from coming to faith in our Lord. While Abraham was not eager to talk about his faith to Abimelech, God was not reluctant to own Abraham as a person and a prophet. Why didn’t God keep His relationship to Abraham quiet? Wouldn’t the poor testimony of Abraham drive Abimelech away from God?

We would have expected Abimelech to respond to Abraham’s sin as many do today: “The church is full of hypocrites. If that’s what Christianity is, I don’t want any part of it.” Such excuses are no better than Abraham’s.

Abraham’s failure provided Abimelech with the best reason in the world to be a believer in his God: the God of Abraham was a God of grace, not of works. Abraham’s God not only saved him apart from works (cf. Genesis 15:6; Romans 4) but kept him apart from works. Abraham’s faith was in a God Whose gifts and blessings are not based upon our faithfulness but His. Men and women are not looking for a fair-weather religion but one that assures them of salvation regardless of their spiritual condition at the moment. The kind of faith Abraham had is the kind which men desire, one that works even when we don’t.

(4) The grace of God and the eternal security of the believer. That brings us to our final point: the Christian is eternally secure regardless of failures in faith. Backsliding is never encouraged, never winked at, and never without painful consequences according to Scripture. Nevertheless, backsliding will never cost the Christian his salvation. The salvation which God offers to men is eternal. If anyone should have lost his salvation, it was Abraham, but he remained a child of God.

What a background chapter 20 sets for chapter 21. We would have expected Isaac to have been conceived at a high point in Abraham and Sarah’s lives, but it was not so. We would at least have expected Abraham’s unbelief to have been exposed and finally conquered in chapter 20, but it did not happen. In fact, Abraham never even acknowledged the sinfulness of his actions.

God blessed Abraham, He gave him wealth (Genesis 12:16,20; 13:1-2, 20:14-16) and the son He had promised (Genesis 21:1ff). He also gave him a privileged position (Genesis 20:7, 17-18). All those blessings were gifts of God’s grace, not rewards for Abraham’s good works. By the end of Genesis 20 we must conclude, in the words of Kidner:

After his spiritual exertions Abraham’s relapse into faithless scheming, as at other moments of anticlimax (see on 12:10ff and on chapter 16), carries its own warning. But the episode is chiefly one of suspense: on the brink of Isaac’s birth-story here is the very Promise put in jeopardy, traded away for personal safety. If it is ever to be fulfilled, it will have to be achieved by the grace of God.192

185 While no reasons for Abraham’s moves are given, I would think that chapter 19 supplies us with a strong suggestion for Abraham’s departure from Mamre. Somehow the devastation of the cities of the valley must have had some effect on Abraham’s ability to raise his great herds of cattle. It is likely that the availability of both grass and water may have affected his other moves as well.

186 The critics have pounced upon the mention of the Philistines in 21:32. This is impossible and thus in error because the Philistines were not in the land until after Moses, their dominion of Palestine being around 1175 B.C. It would appear that the problem is best explained by viewing these early Philistines as those of an early wave of migrants who paved the way for the later, more hostile immigrants identified biblically as Philistines. For a lengthy discussion of this problem, cf. Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 181-182. Kidner concisely summarizes:

“The Philistines arrived in Palestine in force in the early twelfth century; Abimelech’s group will have been early forerunners, perhaps in the course of trade.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 142.

187 Abimelech is thought to be a title of office, like Pharaoh, and not the given name of a person. It is difficult to know for certain whether Abimelech is a moral pagan or a true believer in the God of Abraham.

188 Some marvel at the fact that Sarah could still be so attractive at the age of 90 that she would be desirable as a wife (or concubine). We must remember that the life span of men and women was longer then than now. Abraham lived to the age of 175 (25:7), Sarah to 127 (23:1). Also, in order to bear the child the normal aging process must have been retarded. The text leaves the impression that Abraham feared for his safety because of Sarah’s beauty. I believe we should be willing to accept this at face value. This does not mean that other reasons for taking Sarah could not have been present. Abraham was a man of wealth and power. Alliances were made by means of marriages, and thus Abimelech’s reasons for marrying Sarah may have been numerous.

189 Some have suggested that Sarah had no guilt in affirming Abraham’s lies as the truth. It is said that Sarah was merely being submissive and that Abraham bore his guilt and Sarah’s also. I see no biblical evidence for such claims. Sarah was commended in Scripture for her submissive obedience. The reference of Peter to Sarah, however, is not to her lie in Genesis 20 but to her reverence toward her husband in chapter 18 (verse 12). Here, late in life and at a time when the promise of a child seemed incredible, she still referred to Abraham with deep respect, evidenced by the word ‘lord’: “And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’” (Genesis 18:12). Furthermore, Peter, while commending Sarah’s obedience, carefully defined the kind of obedience which is acceptable and pleasing to God: “Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” Abraham’s lie and Sarah’s participation in it was based upon fear, and Moses made it clear that it was not right, even in the eyes of a pagan. While Sarah’s obedient spirit may be commended, her lie is not. We must always obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). Submission is the obedience we give when, in our judgment, the action is unwise; it is not participating in what we know from God’s Word to be wrong. In the biblical chain-of-command God’s revealed will is supreme, and it overrules all other levels of authority if they are in direct conflict.

190 While Abraham does not fit the usual conception of a biblical prophet, it is a fitting designation. He did, consistent with the Hebrew word, nabhi, serve as a speaker or spokesman for God (cf. Exodus 4:16, 7:1). Furthermore, a prophet often interceded for others (cf. Deuteronomy 9:20; I Samuel 7:5). In both of these senses Abraham was a prophet, although he did not foretell the future.

191 Stigers suggests that the 1000 pieces of silver was actually the value of the cattle given:

“Herein are described the results of the incident presented in vv. 1-7. In v. 16 there is the peculiar circumstance of the money, which may be a value paraphrase of the value of the animals and slaves given to Abraham, stated in a judicial manner. The giving of the animals is, in effect, a pecuniary settlement to guarantee that no legal recourse may be had by Abraham against Abimelech at any future time.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 180. In his usual concise style Kidner summarizes: “In offering the compensation Abimelech owned his error (though the term ‘thy brother’ re-emphasized his innocence), and in accepting it Abraham acknowledged the matter settled.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 139.

192 Ibid., p. 137.

22. What Happens When Christians Mess Up? (Genesis 21:1-34)


In one of her movies Julie Andrews sings a beautiful song, one of my favorites, but its theology is abominable. The lyrics go something like this: “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.” Many Christians seem to have the same kind of theology. They believe that the good things which happen in life are the result of some good thing they have done. So also, like Job’s friends, they think that everything unpleasant is the result of some evil they have done.

I do not wish to challenge the fact that obedience brings blessing, for ultimately it always does. However, God often brings tribulation into the life of a faithful Christian in order to bring about growth and maturity. So also, God brings blessing into the life of the Christian in spite of what he has done more than because of anything good he has done. That’s grace—unmerited favor. Genesis 21 is proof of this kind of blessing in the life of the Christian.

The background to Genesis 21 is one that Abraham would have preferred Moses not bother to record in holy writ. While sojourning in Gerar, Abraham once again passed off his wife Sarah as his sister. The results were not very pleasant, for Abraham was rebuked by a pagan king. The real tragedy is that there seemed to be no genuine sorrow or repentance for the sin that was committed. So far as we can tell, Abraham was not at a very high point in his spiritual life when the “child of promise,” Isaac, was born to Sarah. It was at this low ebb in Abraham’s spirituality that God brought one of the promised blessings to pass in his life.

The Birth of the Promised Son

The events of verses 1 through 7 can be seen in three different dimensions. In verses 1 and 2 we see the divine dimension in the birth of the son as a gift from God. Verses 3 through 5 record the response of Abraham to the birth of this son. Finally, in verses 6 and 7 we have the jubilance of Sarah over the arrival of the long-awaited child, who is the joy of her life.

An Act of God (vss. 1-2)

I have a friend who is an insurance agent, and he would be quick to tell me that an “act of God” in his line of work is a disaster over which man has no control. Isaac was an “act of God” in a very different sense. He was the result of divine intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, both of whom were too old to bear children. It was the fulfillment of a promise made long before the birth of the child and often reiterated to Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:2; 15:4; 17:15-16; 18:10):

Then the Lord took note of Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had promised. So Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which God had spoken to him (Genesis 21:1-2).

Several things are striking about this passage. First, we cannot miss the note of calm assurance. There has been no suspense. The event comes without surprise, reported as though nothing else could have happened than what did. And, of course, this is precisely right.

Second, there is a distinct emphasis on the aspect of fulfillment. The birth of Isaac came without surprise simply because that was what God had promised would happen. Four times in these two short verses the element of fulfillment is stressed (“as He had said,” “as He had promised,” verse 1; “at the appointed time,” “which God had spoken,” verse 2). It was God who promised the child; it was God who accomplished His word. And this was done right on schedule. God’s purposes are never delayed, nor are they ever defeated by man’s sin. God’s purposes are certain. What God has promised, He will accomplish.

Third, the son seems to be given almost more for Sarah’s benefit here than for Abraham’s. “The Lord,” Moses wrote, “took note of Sarah … and … did for Sarah” (verse 1). I do not think it too far afield to suggest that Sarah wanted that son more than Abraham did. You will remember that Abraham besought God on behalf of Ishmael, seemingly to accept him as the son of promise (cf. 17:18). Neither did Abraham seem to take the promise of a son too seriously when he was willing to subject Sarah to the dangers of Abimelech’s harem at the very time she was about to conceive the promised son (cf. 17:21; 18:14). And so, even though Abraham may not have had the desire for this child as much as his wife, God kept His promise.

Aloof Acceptance (vss. 3-5)

The next verses seem to confirm my suspicion that Abraham was not ecstatic about Isaac, at least not nearly as much as his wife:

And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore to him, Isaac. Then Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Now Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him (Genesis 21:3-5).

His response to the birth of Isaac might be described as “dutiful.” In obedience to the instructions given him in Genesis 17, Abraham named the baby Isaac and circumcised him on the eighth day. Abraham thus followed God’s instructions out to the letter, but perhaps without the joy that could have been experienced.

We are reminded that Abraham was now 100 years old. In a way, Abraham and Sarah were more like grandparents to Isaac than parents. Who of us would have been overjoyed at the birth of a child at this age? When Abraham could have been drawing Social Security payments for 35 years, he became a parent. And at the age of 113 he would enter into the teenage years with his son.

Sarah’s Ecstasy (vss. 6-7)

If Abraham’s response to the birth of this child is merely dutiful, Sarah’s is delirious:

And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:6-7).

The name Isaac meant “laughter.” Both Abraham and Sarah, when they were told of the son who was to be born to them, laughed (cf. 17:17; 18:12). More than anything, their laughter was prompted by the absurdity of the thought of having a child so late in life. But now the name Isaac took on a new significance, for he was a delight to his mother, who experienced the pleasures of motherhood so late in her life.

Ishmael Is Put Away

Abraham’s lack of enthusiasm about his son Isaac may seem very conjectural, and we must admit this candidly, but the events of verses 8-21 certainly seem to strengthen this impression about Abraham and his attitude toward his son.

On the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham prepared a great feast. This seems to have provided the occasion for celebration in those days. We should bear in mind that the weaning of a child often occurred much later than it would today. Isaac could easily have been three or four years old, or even older.

The sight of Hagar’s son at the feast robbed Sarah of all of the joy she should have had. By this time Ishmael would have entered his teens and would likely have reflected his mother’s disregard for Sarah and her son. Whether Ishmael was actually mocking Isaac or merely playing and having a good time is hard to determine in the context since the word employed in verse 9 could mean either. However, Paul’s commentary in Galatians 4:29 informs us that mockery was the meaning Moses intended to convey.193 Sarah determined that something was going to be done once and for all. Forcefully she gave Abraham an ultimatum:

Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of the maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac (Genesis 21:10).

How out of character Sarah seems at this moment. How different the description of her in Peter’s epistle is from that described by Moses:

And let not your adornment be external only—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (I Peter 3:3-6).

Sarah is obviously not at her best in chapter 21, but then neither is Abraham. Some have tried to applaud Sarah for her depth of spiritual insight concerning the fact that Isaac would be the heir, not Ishmael. Personally, I think that her primary motive was that of jealousy and a protective instinct to see to it that her son got what was coming to him.

Sarah, like every Christian I have ever known, had moments she would just as soon forget entirely. This is surely one of those times for her. Peter’s use of Sarah as an example of humility and submissiveness overlooks this event as an exception to the normal rule. In a similar fashion the writer to the Hebrews spoke of Abraham and Sarah as those whose faith we should imitate. Their mistakes and sins were not mentioned because they were dealt with once and for all under the blood of Christ. Furthermore, their sins are not the point of the author’s purpose in Hebrews, but rather their faith. Men’s sins are recorded in Scripture in order to remind us that the men and women of old were no different than we are and to serve as a warning and instruction to us not to repeat their mistakes (cf. I Corinthians 10:11).

Abraham was deeply grieved by the decision that was being forced upon him (Genesis 21:11). From chapter 17 we know that he was very attached to his son Ishmael and that he would have been content for this child to be the heir through whom God’s promises were to be fulfilled. This, however, was impossible because Ishmael was the result of human effort, devoid of faith (cf. Galatians 4:21ff).

The attachment of Abraham to this son, Ishmael, was so great that a crisis had to be reached before he would come to grips with the situation. While we cannot justify the motivation of Sarah for her ultimatum, I personally believe that such a move had to occur in order to force Abraham’s hand in setting aside his aspirations for this son.

God reassured Abraham that as painful and unpleasant as the situation might be, putting Ishmael away was the right thing to do. In this instance he should listen to his wife:

Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named (Genesis 21:12).

We should notice that it is both Hagar and the boy who are close to Abraham’s heart. Heretofore Hagar has been referred to as Sarah’s maid, but here she is called “your maid” by God. Sarah, we recall, was intensely jealous of Hagar and of her son (cf. Genesis 16:5). It is impossible for a man to enter into an intimate relationship such as the one Abraham had with Hagar and then to simply walk away. Sarah knew this, and so did God. In more than just a physical way Abraham had become one with Hagar, and Ishmael was the evidence of this union.

In chapter 17 God had refused to accept Ishmael as the heir of Abraham. Isaac, He had insisted, would be the heir of promise (17:19). It was therefore necessary for Ishmael to be sent away and forever eliminated from the status of an heir. For this reason Sarah’s demands were to be met, and Ishmael was to be sent away. Yet the promises God had made to Hagar (16:10-12) and to Abraham (17:20) concerning Ishmael would be honored: “And of the son of the maid I will make a nation also, because he is your descendant” (Genesis 21:13).

The sending away of the son of a concubine was not without precedent in that day. In the Code of Hammurabi, Law 146, the children of slaves who were not made heirs must be set free as compensation for this.194 Abraham’s sending away of Ishmael fits very nicely into this practice. By giving him his freedom, he indicated that Ishmael had no part in his inheritance, which was kept exclusively for Isaac.

Abraham arose early to send off Hagar and Ishmael. This may evidence his resolve to carry out an unpleasant task, as Kidner suggests.195 While it sounds far less spiritual, I wonder if Abraham did not do so for other reasons. Surely an early start would be wise in the desert, since travel should be done in the cool of the day. Also, an early departure would make it easier to say their good-byes without the interference of Sarah. I think that Abraham wanted to express his deep-rooted love for both Hagar and Ishmael without a hostile audience.

Some have suggested that Hagar lost her way in the desert and that this explains why she “wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba” (verse 14). Why did she not return to Egypt, as she seemed to be heading there when she first escaped from Sarai (16:7ff)? Later, she would take a wife for Ishmael from Egypt (verse 21). I believe that Hagar did not return to Egypt because she believed that God would fulfill His promises concerning Ishmael in the place where she chose to wander. In that sense she sojourned in the wilderness, much like Abraham, trusting God to bless them there.

Eventually the provisions Abraham gave them ran out and death appeared to be at hand. The boy was no infant here, as we might suppose, but a teenager, for he was nearly fourteen years older than Isaac (cf. 17:25). Not wanting to see him die, Hagar left Ishmael some distance from her under what little shade the bushes would afford. She then lifted up her voice and wept.

It was not Hagar’s cries that arrested God’s attention, but the boy’s.196 As a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael was the object of God’s special care. His cries brought divine intervention:

And God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand; for I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:17-18).

The solution to Hagar’s problem was already present. Through her tears she could not see the well close by. More than likely, it was not a distinct structure but simply a small source of water hidden among the bushes. God thus enabled her to see things as they really were, and she and the boy were refreshed and revived.

God’s working in Hagar’s life may seem harsh to us, but I understand His dealings to be such that His promises were accomplished. You remember that Ishmael was to be a “wild ass” of a man, hostile toward his brothers, and a free spirit. This kind of man could not be raised in the city with all of its conveniences and advantages. Learning to survive in the desert, to prevail over hostile elements was just what it took to make such a man out of Ishmael. As boot camp makes a good Marine, so desert survival made a man of Ishmael.

Abimelech Makes a Treaty with Abraham

Verses 22 through 34 describe a particular incident in the life of Abraham. The agreement which was made between Abraham and Abimelech is significant for both Abraham and for us. By implication it says a great deal about the fears and the faith of Abraham.

The meeting between these three figures was one of great import. Abraham was recognized as a man of influence and power. More than this, he was known to be the object of divine love and protection. Abimelech and Phicol came to Abraham; they did not invite him to the palace. They came to make a treaty:

Now it come about at that time, that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, “God is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me, or with my offspring, or with my posterity; but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me, and to the land in which you have sojourned” (Genesis 21:22-23).

It is difficult to fathom the intense embarrassment this request should have brought Abraham. Here was the king of the land where Abraham lived and his prime minister coming to him seeking a treaty. They acknowledged that their motivation was based largely upon the fact that Abraham was one loved by God. In essence, these men were aware by their own experience of the Abrahamic covenant:

“And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham because he did not ever wish to go to battle against him. To fight Abraham was to attack Abraham’s God and to have to contend with Him. On the other hand, to have an alliance with Abraham was to have God on his side. No wonder Abimelech was so anxious to negotiate such a treaty.

But do you see the lesson this should have taught Abraham? Abraham had lied to Abimelech about Sarah because he thought that there would be no fear of God, and thus no protection of himself, in a land of pagans (cf. 20:11). God rebuked the unbelief of Abraham by this testimony from the lips of Abimelech.

Furthermore, Abraham’s deception was rebuked. How would you feel if a king and his prime minister flattered you by acknowledging that God was with you in a very special way and then made you promise that you wouldn’t lie to him any more? Abimelech respected Abraham’s God, but he was not so sure about Abraham’s credibility. By putting Abraham on oath Abimelech sought to remedy the problem of deception. Once before he had nearly lost his life because of Abraham’s deception (20:3); he did not ever want that to happen again.

Once the treaty was made, Abraham brought up a specific grievance which could be settled under the terms just reached. Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well that his servants had dug, only to have it confiscated by servants of Abimelech (verse 25). Abimelech not only denied knowledge of the incident but seemed to mildly reproach Abraham for not bringing the matter to his personal attention (verse 26). A specific covenant was then made concerning this well, seven ewe lambs being a token of the agreement (verses 28-31). Abimelech and Phicol went their way, and Abraham commemorated his worship of the Lord in thanksgiving for this treaty by planting a tamarisk tree. And so Abraham stayed on in the land of the Philistines for some time.

The lesson that Abraham learned from this was striking. He had feared for his life and for his wife among these “pagans” (20:11). God showed him that Abimelech recognized his favored status with his God and that Abimelech would not have done him bodily harm on account of this. Not only would Abimelech not take a wife that was not his, he would not even take a well that did not belong to him. How foolish the fears of Abraham seem after this incident!


Several lessons emerge from this page of history from the life of Abraham. First, we must conclude that God’s blessings continue to come into the lives of His people, even at the times when their faith is at its lowest ebb. Neither Abraham nor Sarah were seen at their best in this chapter; and yet God gave them the promised son, He preserved the life of Hagar and Ishmael, and He brought about an alliance with a pagan king which gave Abraham a favored position.

Lest we should conclude that holiness is therefore unimportant, it must also be said that disobedience has its painful consequences. While it was years after the union of Abraham and Hagar, a union which denied the power of God to fulfill His covenant promises, Abraham had to face up to his wrong and send his beloved son away. Sooner or later the consequences for sin will be reaped by the sinner. So, here, the ugliness of Sarah, the tearful parting from Abraham, and the brush with death in the wilderness resulted from Abraham’s impetuous act with Hagar.

Second, we should be reminded that the right things sometimes happen for the wrong reasons. I do not believe that Sarah was shown in the best light in this chapter. I do not see a quiet and submissive spirit in her confrontation with Abraham. Nevertheless, we must conclude from God’s instructions to Abraham to obey his wife that the right thing to do was to put Ishmael away, once and for all. This prepared the way for the “sacrifice of Isaac” in the next chapter, for only now could God say to Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there … ” (Genesis 22:2).

Throughout the Bible we see that the right things are often the result of the wrong reasons. For example, Joseph was sent to Egypt to prepare the way for the salvation of the nation Israel, but he got there through the treachery of his brothers, who thought they were getting rid of him by selling him into slavery. Satan afflicted Job in order to demonstrate that believers only trust in God because of the profit motive. God, however, allowed Job to be tested in order to teach Satan (and us) a lesson in faith.

Are you in a difficult or painful situation? Perhaps you got there because of the deceit or maliciousness of someone else. That doesn’t really matter, so far as you are concerned. If you believe in a God who is truly sovereign, really in control, then you must accept the fact that God has brought you to the right place for the wrong reason. The reasons may not be praiseworthy, but you can be assured that God has you in that place for a good reason.

Third, we learn that the greatest portion of our fears are totally unfounded. Abraham feared for his life and for his wife. Abraham believed that God would be obeyed and His people protected only where He was known and feared. Abraham was to learn through this treaty with Abimelech that God cares for His own. If Abimelech would not dare to take a well, he would not take a wife or a life. All of Abraham’s schemes were for naught. Faith can rest upon the covenant promises of God; fear has no basis at all.

Finally, God’s answer to our problem is often the solution which has been there all along, but our anxiety has kept us from seeing it. I love the fact that Hagar saw the well that had been there all along. Only her tears and her fears kept her from seeing it. The cries of those who belong to God will reach Him, but the answers need not be spectacular or miraculous, as we sometimes expect or demand. Many times the answer will be that which, in time, is obvious.

Do you belong to Him, my friend? If you have come to trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, then you do. And if you do, God cares for you. Those who belong to God need not fear, for He is with them; indeed, He is in them. And, wonder of all, He deals with us in grace. Even at our darkest hours, He remains faithful and His promises true.

193 RSV’s ‘playing’ (implying that Sarah was insanely jealous) is unfair: it should be translated ‘mocking’ (AV, PV). This is the intensive form of Isaac’s name-verb ‘to laugh,’ its malicious sense here demanded by the context and by Galatians 4:29 (‘persecuted’)! Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 140.

194 The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free [Law 171]. Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.

195 Kidner, Genesis, p. 140.

196 It is no coincidence that the name “Ishmael” means “God hears” (cf. Genesis 16:11)
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23. Final Exams (Genesis 22:1-24)


Fourteen years ago I applied for admission to Dallas Theological Seminary. As I was filling out my application, there were some questions which I had to answer. One concerned an area of biblical interpretation over which many Christians disagree. I well remember saying on my application that while I personally agreed with the seminary’s position, I did not see it proven by the passage cited in its support. Nothing was said about this matter for over three years. So far as I was concerned, it was all forgotten.

Just before my final year in seminary I was called into the dean’s office for a little discussion. To my amazement the matter of the difference between my position and the school’s was brought up. You might be interested to know that my position changed little, even through years of study and after learning a little about the original languages of the Bible. Somewhat reassured by my answers, the seminary allowed me to continue my educational program and graduate the next year.

The point of my illustration is that while this difference of interpretation was allowed to persist, there was a time when it would become an important issue. I find that God often does this same thing. He may allow a particular problem to continue for some time, but sooner or later the problem will become an issue of import and one that must be resolved.

Such was the case with Abraham. At the very outset of his relationship with God he was given a clear command concerning his family:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you” (Genesis 12:1; emphasis added).

We know, however, that it took years for Abram to be separated from his father; and when it did occur, it was the result of death rather than of deliberate obedience. Next it was Lot from whom Abram was reluctant to separate. In chapter 21 there was the painful act of sending away Ishmael, a son deeply loved by Abraham. In chapter 22 Abraham has come to his ultimate test. Abraham was an elderly man, and Sarah was soon to die. Abraham’s love was now focused upon Isaac, who after chapter 21 is his only son (22:2). God has brought Abraham to the point where he must give priority to either his faith or his family. The greatest test of his faith now confronts Abraham in Genesis 22.

The Command

We are not told the exact time of the ultimate test in Abraham’s life, only that it came after the events of chapter 21. Personally, I believe that it was at least ten years later, which would make Isaac a young man of at least the age of Ishmael when he was sent away. This would give ample time for the affections of Abraham for his first son to have been transferred to his second, Isaac. Isaac is thus accurately called his “only son” and the son whom Abraham loved (verse 2).

Contrary to the connotation of the term “tempted” employed by the King James translators in verse 2, God tested Abraham to demonstrate his faith in tangible terms. We know from Scripture that while God tests men to prove their godly character as saints, He never solicits them to sin (cf. James 1:12-18). Thus, in James 2 the apostle can point to this event in Abraham’s life as an evidence of a living faith:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (James 2:21)197

God’s command to Abraham must have caught him totally unprepared:

And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The greatest difficulty I find in this chapter is not the conduct of Abraham but the command of God. How can a God of wisdom, mercy, justice, and love command Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice? Infant sacrifice was practiced by the Canaanites, but it was condemned by God (cf. Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31). Furthermore, such a sacrifice would have had no real value:

Does the Lord take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

To point out that God stopped Abraham short of carrying out the command does not solve the problem. How could God have given the order in the first place if it were immoral? To hold that God could ever command His children to do wrong, even as a test, is to open the door to all kinds of difficulties.

Several factors must be considered to understand this test in a proper light. First of all, we must admit a strong bias in the matter. We who are parents are repulsed by the thought of sacrificing our children upon an altar. We thus project our abhorrence upon God and suppose that He could never consider such a thing either. Secondly, we view this command from the vantage point of the culture of the day, which did practice child sacrifice. If the pagans did it and God condemned their practice, it must be wrong in any context.

We are forced to the conclusion that the sacrifice of Isaac could not have been wrong, whether only attempted or accomplished, because God is incapable of evil (James 1:13ff; I John 1:5). Much more than this, it could not be wrong to sacrifice an only son because God actually did sacrifice His only begotten Son:

All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand (Isaiah 53:6,10).

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16; cf. Matthew 26:39,42; Luke 22:22; John 3:17; Acts 2:23; II Corinthians 5:21; Revelation 13:8).

In this sense, God did not require Abraham to do anything that He Himself would not do. Indeed, the command to Abraham was intended to foreshadow what He would do centuries later on the cross of Calvary.

Only by understanding the typological significance of the “sacrifice of Isaac” can we grasp the fact that God’s command was holy and just and pure. Abraham’s willingness to give up his only son humanly illustrated the love of God for man, which caused Him to give His only begotten Son. The agony of heart experienced by Abraham reflected the heart of the Father at the suffering of His Son. The obedience of Isaac typified the submission of the Son to the will of the Father (cf. Matthew 26:39,42).

God halted the sacrifice of Isaac for two reasons. First, such a sacrifice would have no benefit for others. The lamb must be “without blemish,” without sin, innocent (cf. Isaiah 53:9). This is the truth which Micah implied (6:7). Second, Abraham’s faith was amply evidenced by the fact that he was fully intending to carry out the will of God. We have no question in our mind that had God not intervened, Isaac would have been sacrificed. In attitude Isaac had already been sacrificed, so the act was unnecessary.

A second difficulty pertains to the silence of Abraham. One of my friends put it well: “How come Abraham interceded with God for Sodom, but not for his son Isaac?” We must remember that the Scriptures are selective in what they report, choosing to omit what is not essential to the development of the argument of the passage (cf. John 20:30-31; 21:25). In this chapter of Genesis, for example, we know that God was to indicate the particular place to “sacrifice” Isaac (verse 2) and that Abraham went to this spot (verse 9), but we are not told when God revealed this to him.

I believe that Moses, under the superintending guidance of the Holy Spirit, omitted Abraham’s initial reaction to God’s command in order to highlight his ultimate response—obedience. Personally (although there is no Scripture to support my conjecture), I believe that Abraham argued and pled with God for the life of his son, but God chose not to record this point in Abraham’s life because it would have had little to inspire us. I know that many of us would not want God to report our first reactions to unpleasant situations either; it is our final response that matters (cf. Matthew 21:28-31).

This helps me as I read the evaluation of Old Testament saints in the New Testament. Except for the words of Peter I would never have considered Lot to be a righteous man (II Peter 2:7-8). In Hebrews 11 and Romans 4 Abraham is portrayed as a man without failure or fault, yet the book of Genesis clearly reports these weaknesses. The reason, I believe, is that the New Testament writers are viewing these saints as God does. Because of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, the sins of the saints are not only forgiven but also forgotten. The wood, hay, and stubble of sin is consumed, leaving only the gold, silver, and precious stones (I Corinthians 3:10-15). The sins of the saints are not glossed over; they are covered by the blood of Christ. When these sins are recorded, it is only for our admonition and instruction (I Corinthians 10:1ff, especially verse 11).

Abraham’s Obedience

Regardless of the struggles which are not reported, Abraham arose early to begin the longest journey of his life:

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 (Genesis 22:3).

I have said previously that while the early hour may reflect the resolve of Abraham to do God’s will, it may contain some human factors also. First, I would imagine that sleep completely evaded Abraham on that night, especially after God had clearly commanded the sacrifice of Isaac. Some people rise early because all hope of sleep is gone. Then, too, I would not have wanted to face Sarah with my plans for the coming days. While Abraham was resigned to do God’s will, Sarah is not informed of this test (at least so far as the Scriptures record).

After a heart-breaking three-day journey the mountain of sacrifice was in view. At this point Abraham left his servants behind and went on alone with Isaac:

And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together (Genesis 22:5-6).

In the midst of great anguish of soul there is a beautiful expression of hope and faith in verse 5:

“Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you” (NIV; emphasis added).

I do not believe these words were idly spoken but that they reflected a deep inner trust in God and His promises. The God Who had commanded the sacrifice of Isaac had also promised to produce a nation through him (17:15-19; 21:12).

As the two went on alone climbing the mountain to the place of sacrifice, Isaac put a question to his father which must have broken his heart: “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (verse 7)

The answer was painfully evident to Abraham, and yet there is in his answer not only a deliberate vagueness but also an element of hope: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (verse 8).

At every step Abraham must have hoped for some change of plans, some alternative course of action. The place was reached, the altar built, and the wood arranged. At last there was nothing left but to bind Isaac and place him upon the wood and plunge the knife into his heart.

God’s Provision

Only when the knife was lifted high, glistening in the sun, did God restrain Abraham from offering up his son:

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me” (Genesis 22:11-12).

At the point of death it was evident that Abraham was willing to forsake all, even his son, his only son, for God. While God knew the heart of Abraham, Abraham’s reverence was now evident from experiential knowledge.

Also at the point of total obedience came the provision of God. God did not halt the act of sacrifice; He provided a ram as a substitute for Isaac:

Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son (verse 13).

From this experience it was seen that Abraham’s faith that God would provide a sacrificial offering (verse 8) was honored and that God does indeed provide:

And Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (verse 14).

God’s Promise

In addition to God’s intervention to prevent Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, there was the confirmation of God’s promises to Abraham through his son:

“… By Myself I have sworn,” declares the Lord, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Genesis 22:16-18).

There is little in this divine confirmation that is new,198 although there is one striking change. In previous instances these promises were made unconditionally (cf. 12:1-3; 15:13-16, 18-21). Now the blessings are promised Abraham because he had obeyed God in this test (22:16,18).

The change is not as dramatic as it might first appear, however. In chapter 17 God reaffirmed His promises, beginning with these words: “I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. And I will establish My covenant … ” (verses 1-2).

Furthermore, Abraham was instructed to “keep My covenant” (17:9,10,11). Then in chapter 18 we read:

… Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him (18:18-19).

We must realize that God’s choice of Abraham included not only the end God purposed (blessings) but also the means (faith and obedience). After his ultimate test on Mount Moriah God can say that the blessings are a result of the obedience which stems from faith. This same sequence is evident in the New Testament:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren; and whom He predestined, these He also called; and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

The work of God begins with a promise which must be accepted by faith. Ultimately this faith, if it is genuine, will be demonstrated by good works (cf. James 2). The promises of God are sure to every believer because God is sovereign at every step—from faith to obedience to blessing.


This incident in Abraham’s life had several results for the patriarch.

(1) It dealt with a problem that had plagued him all of his life—unhealthy attachment to family. It was here that Abraham had to choose between Isaac and God for his first loyalty. His obedience finally put this problem to rest.

(2) His obedience to the revealed will of God justified his profession of faith:

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God (James 2:17-23).

James is not disagreeing with Paul here. He would agree that a man is saved by faith, apart from works (cf. Romans 4), but James insists that a saving faith is a working faith. A faith which is professed but not practiced is a dead faith. While Abraham was justified before God by believing the promise of God (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3), he was justified before men by his obedience (Genesis 22, James 2). God could look on Abraham’s heart and know that his faith was genuine; we must look at his obedience to see that his profession was genuine.

(3) Abraham’s obedience resulted in spiritual growth and deeper insight into the person and promises of God. No experience in Abraham’s life made the person and work of Christ more evident. This is why our Lord could say to the Jews of His day: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). Times of testing are also times of growth in the lives of believers today.

(4) Abraham’s trial on Mount Moriah prepared him for the future. It is no surprise that the next chapter (23) deals with the death of Sarah. What we need to fathom is the fact that God used the offering of Isaac to prepare Abraham for the death of his wife. We know from Abraham’s words (22:5) and from their interpretation by the writer to the Hebrews (11:19) that Abraham’s faith evidenced on Mount Moriah was a faith in the God Who could raise men and women from the dead (cf. also Romans 4:19). While he did not face death until chapter 23, he dealt with it in chapter 22. God’s tests are often preparatory for greater things ahead (cf. Matthew 4:1-11).

Besides dealing with Abraham, God used this incident on Mount Moriah to instruct the nation Israel, who received this book and the other four books of the Law from the pen of Moses. For those who had just received the Law with its complex sacrificial system, this event in the life of Abraham gave a much deeper understanding of the significance of sacrifice. They should perceive that sacrifice was substitutionary. The animal died in place of man just as the ram was provided in Isaac’s stead. But they should also perceive that ultimately a Son, an only Son, must come to pay the price for sin, which no animal can possibly do. Against the backdrop of the sacrifice on Mount Moriah the whole sacrificial system of the Law was seen to have a deeper, fuller significance.

This incident in the life of Abraham was also intended for our edification and instruction (I Corinthians 10:6,11). Let me suggest several ways that we should learn from the life of Abraham as it is depicted in Genesis 22.

(1) This event is a beautiful foreshadow, a type, of the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Abraham represents God the Father, Who, out of love for mankind, gave His only Son as a sacrifice for sinners (John 3:16). Isaac is a type of Christ, Who submits to the will of His Father. Isaac bore the wood as our Lord bore His cross (Genesis 22:6; John 19:17). It was three days from the time Abraham left to sacrifice his son until they returned together. After three days Abraham received his son back (Hebrews 11:19). After three days our Lord arose from the dead (John 20; I Corinthians 15:4).

Even beyond all this, Isaac was “sacrificed” at the place where our Lord would give His life centuries later, on Mount Moriah outside Jerusalem. We know from II Chronicles 3:1 that this was the place where the Lord appeared to David and where Solomon built the temple. And so it was that Abraham took his son to a mount near Jerusalem to offer his son, even the same place (or nearly so) where our Lord was to die in years to come. What a beautiful illustration of the infinite wisdom of God and of the inspiration of God’s holy Scriptures.

(2) This passage also reminds us of the importance of obedience for the Christian. It was because Abraham obeyed God that the promised blessings were confirmed once again at the climax of our passage (verses 15-18). While man’s works never save him, saving faith must inevitably be manifested in good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Trust and obey is the way of the Christian.

(3) We see also that the Christian life is paradoxical. It would seem that it is self-contradictory. Abraham gained his son by giving him up to God. We get ahead in God’s eyes by putting ourselves behind others (Matthew 23:11; Philippians 2:5ff). We lead by serving; we save our lives by losing them (Matthew 16:25). God’s ways are not man’s ways.

(4) The Christian life is not lived without reason or rationality. I greatly fear that many have read this account in Abraham’s life and concluded that God tests us by directing us to do that which is totally unreasonable.

The danger is that we will tend to assume that whatever does not make sense is likely to be the will of God. Many critics have suggested that Christians are those who take their hats and their heads off when they enter the church. This is not so.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge that what Abraham was commanded to do seemed to be unreasonable. Through Isaac Abraham was to be the father of multitudes. How could this be so if Isaac were dead? Putting a son to death must have seemed totally beyond the character of God. Was God not asking Abraham to act on faith without reason? Notice what the writer to the Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, “IN ISAAC YOUR SEED SHALL BE CALLED.” He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type (Hebrews 11:17-19; emphasis added).

The Greek word here, logizomai, clearly expresses the fact that Abraham acted upon reason.199 This was no blind “leap of faith,” as it is sometimes represented. Faith always acts upon facts and reason.

My point is simply this. The world likes to believe that they act upon reason while Christians act without thinking. That is wholly false. The truth is there are two kinds of reasoning: worldly reasoning and godly reasoning. Peter, when he rebuked our Lord for talking of His sacrificial death, was thinking humanly:

But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:23).

There are two mind sets: the godly mind and the worldly mind:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so (Romans 8:5-7).

The appeal of Paul in Romans 12 is addressed to both our emotions and our minds:

I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith (Romans 12:1-3).

The sacrifice we are called to give to God is that of our living bodies, and it is our logical or rational (Greek, logicos) act of worship. This is accomplished by the renewing of our minds (verse 2). Man’s whole being has been affected by the fall: emotions, intellect, and will. All of these must therefore undergo a radical transformation for us to be conformed to the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Romans 12:3 we are told to think, think, think. This is the use of our new minds. Christianity is rational, but of a vastly different kind than that of the world.

Christian reasoning is based upon the presuppositional belief that there is a God, Who is both our creator and redeemer (Hebrews 11:1ff). Christian reasoning is based upon the belief that God’s Word is absolutely true and reliable. God had promised a son through Sarah through whom the blessings were to be given. Abraham believed God in this (Genesis 15:6). God also commanded Abraham to sacrifice this son. Abraham believed God and obeyed Him even though human reasoning would question the wisdom of it.

Abraham’s reasoning was also based upon his experience with God over the years. God had continually proven to be his provider and protector. God’s sovereign power had repeatedly been demonstrated, even among the heathen such as Pharaoh and Abimelech. While Abraham and Sarah were “as good as dead” so far as bearing children were concerned, God gave them the promised child (Romans 4:19-21).

Abraham did not understand why he was told to sacrifice his son nor how God would accomplish His promises if Abraham obeyed, but he did know Who had commanded it. He did know that God was holy, just, and pure. He did know that God was able to raise the dead. On the basis of these certainties Abraham obeyed God, contrary to human wisdom, but squarely based upon godly reason. Godly reason has reasons. We may not know how or why, but we do know Who and what. That is enough!

(5) There is a beautiful principle taught in our text: “… In the mount of the Lord it will be provided” (verse 14).

In verse 8 Abraham assured his son that God would provide a lamb, and so He did (verse 13). The principle is not that God will provide at a certain place, but under a certain condition. At the point of faith and obedience, at the point of helplessness and dependence, God will provide. Often, I believe, we do not see God’s provision because we are not at a point of despair.

I remember the story of two sailors who alone survived a shipwreck. They were adrift at sea on a makeshift raft. After all hope of rescue was lost, one asked the other if they should pray. Both agreed, and one had just begun to cry to God for help when the other interrupted, “Hold it, don’t commit yourself, I think I see a sail.”

God sometimes must bring us to the point where we find Abraham on Mount Moriah—totally depending upon God for deliverance. It is there that we must acknowledge that God has provided. This is the point men and women must come to in order to be saved. They must see themselves as lost sinners, deserving of God’s eternal wrath. They must forsake any faith in themselves and any work they might do to win God’s favor. They must look only to God to provide the forgiveness of sins and righteousness required for salvation. God’s provision has been made by the death of His sinless Son, Jesus Christ, on Calvary 2000 years ago. If you have reached the point of despair, my friend, I want you to know it is also the point of help and salvation. Cast all your hope upon the Christ of Calvary, and you will surely find salvation.

(6) Finally, this passage has been used for a tragic evil, the sacrifice of our sons and daughters on the pretext of obeying a divine command. God has never instructed His saints to sacrifice their families for any ministry or any calling. We must put God first, this is true (Matthew 10:37), but obedience to God necessitates provision and instruction of our families (cf. I Timothy 5:8; Ephesians 6:4; I Timothy 3:4-5, 12).

Many parents, like Abraham, view their future as wrapped up in their children. They wish to manipulate their lives so as to live out their hopes and dreams in them. We must give our children to the Lord and submit them, as ourselves, to His keeping and care. Then will we, and they, find God’s blessing.

I must sadly admit that the problem of Abraham is surely foreign to our world today. How little we must worry about undue attachment to our children in this day when abortion is rampant, and mothers and fathers are forsaking their families for a freer lifestyle. In this we see the prophecy of conditions for the end times being fulfilled in our midst:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these (II Timothy 3:1-5).

In verse 3 the first word, “unloving,” means literally “without love of kindred.” These are days when the natural paternal affections are becoming rare. Surely the Lord’s return is near. May God enable us to love our children so much that we commit them to God’s will for their lives.

197 In this chapter James is not debating Paul’s theology but is stressing a complementary truth: While works cannot save, only a faith that works does save. The justification of which James speaks in chapter 2 is not before God but before men. The faith a man has in his heart justifies him before God, but the faith a man demonstrates by his life justifies his claim to be saved before men.

198 Stigers’ remarks, however, are worthy of repetition: “The phrase ‘gates of their enemies’ (v. 17) is of far-reaching significance as to the future of God’s redemptive program. The other elements of the oath-promise, the innumerable descendants and the blessing to come upon the nations, are the same as those found in 12:1-3; however, the phrase ‘a land I will shew/give thee’ is now replaced by ‘possess the gate of their enemies.’ This enlarges the meaning of the promise of the land: that of assuming the place and power of the previous peoples. But the promise is not localized in any way; any enemy of any time is designated, unless Israel shall deny her God (cf. Ps. 89:30-33). The phrase connotes the ultimate victory of holiness over all things, shared in by God’s people.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), pp. 190-191.

199 “Hence, logizomai means: (a) reckon, credit, rank with, calculate; (b) consider, deliberate, grasp, draw a logical conclusion, decide.” J. Eichler, “Logizomai,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), III, pp. 822-823.
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24. Dealing with Death (Genesis 23:1-20)


I have always loved challenges. As a mechanic I delight to delve into a problem that seemingly evades diagnosis. As a preacher I thrive on the passages that would normally be passed by. It would seem that I have come to the right passage for my personality as I approach the twenty-third chapter of Genesis. A preacher whom I greatly respect confesses that this is one text he would not preach by choice. In reading over a sermon he preached on this chapter I note that four-fifths of his sermon dealt with one-tenth of the text.

We should not be shocked to find the death of Sarah recorded as a part of the biography of Abraham; however, of the twenty verses in this chapter, less than two of them refer to the emotional response of Abraham to his wife’s death. No romanticist could tolerate this! The remaining eighteen verses have to do with the purchase of the plot where Sarah is buried.

I know that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” but I want us to come to this text fully convinced that God has a word for us here. Furthermore, I believe that we must seek the greatest part of our instruction from the greater part of the passage—the purchase of the plot of ground in which Sarah is buried.

Preparation for Sarah’s Parting

While Sarah’s death is not recorded until Genesis 23, the previous chapter has prepared Abraham and us for the events of our passage. The “sacrifice” of Isaac on Mount Moriah brought Abraham to a firm faith in God’s power to raise the dead (cf. Hebrews 11:19). While this did not prove a necessity in the case of Isaac, it would be so with Sarah in the years ahead. A willingness to put Isaac to death enabled Abraham to accept the passing of his wife Sarah.

Furthermore, the last verses of chapter 22 record an incident which would bear upon the future:

Now it came about after these things, that it was told Abraham, saying, “Behold, Milcah also has borne children to your brother Nahor: Uz his firstborn and Buz his brother and Kemuel the father of Aram and Chesed and Hazo and Pildash and Jidlaph and Bethuel.” And Bethuel become the father of Rebekah; these eight Milcah bore to Nahor, Abraham’s brother. And his concubine, whose name was Reumah, also bore Tebah and Gaham and Tahash and Maacah ( Genesis 22:20-24; emphasis added).

In the providence of God a wife for Isaac had already been provided long before the need had arisen. God takes care of the future in advance. As a friend of mine has put it, “The ram is already in the bush” (cf. 22:13).

Beyond this, the report summarized in verses 20-24 reminded Abraham that his fatherland and family were far away. No doubt the news from “home” pulled at Abraham’s emotional heartstrings. When Sarah died there would be strong emotional reasons for taking her body “home” to bury it. These verses, then, remind us of the strong ties that still remained at Mesopotamia and the significance of Abraham’s decision to bury his wife in Canaan.

Abraham’s Faith Expressed
in His Response to Sarah’s Death

Godly Grief (vss. 1-2)

While our faith is not to be based upon our feelings, neither should it be divorced from our emotions. The first two verses provide the background to our chapter and also describe the grief of the patriarch:

Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her (Genesis 23:1-2).

As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age is revealed. One hundred twenty-seven years is a ripe old age, but the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of Abimelech (20:1-2). Sarah must have appeared to have found the fountain of youth. Her youthfulness and beauty would have concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.

Abraham seems to have been elsewhere at the time of Sarah’s death. While some fanciful explanations exist for this fact, it would be most easily explained by Abraham being out with his flocks or something similar. When he learned of the death of his wife he came to her side to mourn for her.

While the emphasis of the passage does not fall here, we do know that Abraham expressed the grief common to those who face the death of a loved one. Faith is not evidenced by a stoic, stainless steel attitude toward death. Some years ago Jackie Kennedy was lauded for her ‘‘faith” when she “stood up so well” during the death of her husband. History has pretty well provided evidence that Jackie’s lack of emotion at the funeral may have been due to a lack of feeling for her husband. We need only to remark that our Lord wept at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:35).

The Purchase of a Plot (vss. 3-20)

Sarah’s death brought Abraham to a point of decision. The practical matter was: “Where shall I bury Sarah?” The principal issue, however, was this: “Where shall I be buried?” Most often when a burial plot is purchased for the first partner another is bought alongside for the surviving partner, and frequently a whole family plot is secured simultaneously. When Abraham decided upon the burial place for Sarah, he also determined the place of his burial and of his descendants.

Abraham thus approached the Hittites to purchase a burial plot for himself and his family. How strange it must have been for Abraham to petition the Hittites for a burial place in light of the often repeated promise of God:

On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenite and the Kenizzite and the Kadmonite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Rephaim and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Girgashite and the Jebusite’ (Genesis 15:18-21).

Abraham was compelled to buy a portion of the land God had promised to give him and his descendants. Furthermore, he was to purchase the land from a people that God was going to give into his hand. How ironic that Abraham should humbly bow before these people and petition them for a piece of ground.

As we have noted, the majority of chapter 23 is devoted to the description of a legal transaction involving the purchase of a burial plot in Canaan. Only in the light of that culture and time can we grasp the transaction fully. It was a legal process that followed the practices of the Hittites precisely. Even my friend and fellow elder (who is a real estate attorney), could not have done it better.

Legal transactions were typically conducted at the city gate, where the city leaders were present and where witnesses were at hand (cf. Ruth 4:1ff). The terms of the agreement were determined by a sequence of negotiations fully within the customs and culture of the day. It may seem “foreign” to us, and so it is, but not to Abraham or the Hittites. Abraham’s dealings are a model of dignity and fair play.

Abraham’s request (vss. 3-4): Abraham had requested the sons of Heth (verse 3), the Hittites (verse 10), to provide him a place to bury Sarah. He acknowledged that his problem was his status as a “stranger and sojourner” among them (verse 4). At the bottom line this meant that he was not a property owner and had no permanent burial plot.

A generous offer (vss. 5-6): Abraham’s request was taken at face value. It seemed as though Abraham was only asking for the use of a burial place. A man of his station was not to be refused such a request. Abraham was considered a “prince of God.” These Canaanites recognized the hand of God upon this man and were inclined to treat him favorably, even as Abimelech had expressed previously (21:22ff) .

If Abraham wished the use of a burial place, anyone would gladly loan him the best they had. However, a borrowed grave was not acceptable to Abraham. There is really nothing wrong with a borrowed grave; our Lord was buried in one you recall (Matthew 27:60), but our Lord only needed His grave for three days, whereas Abraham needed his site for posterity (Genesis 25:9; 50:13). Nothing less than a permanent possession would satisfy Abraham.

A clarification (vss. 7-9): Abraham’s intentions were not yet understood. He desired a permanent possession, not a borrowed tomb. This land of Canaan was to be his home, not a mere stopping-off place. Consequently, Abraham asked the people to urge Ephron to sell him the cave of Machpelah, which was at the end of his field (verse 9). This was not to be a gift but a purchase at full value of the property.

A modification (vss. 10-11): Ephron, who was sitting among the city’s leaders, responded to Abraham’s request. The significant item is not the offer to give the land to Abraham, for this seems to have been mere formality; it was not an insincere offer so much as one which no one would accept with honor. The modification is in the quantity of land to be deeded over. Abraham asked only for the cave at the end of Ephron’s field, but Ephron specified that the deal was to be a package, the field and the cave. The significance of this will be suggested later.

An anticipated response (vss. 12-13): As expected, Abraham refused the offer of the gift but did accept the alteration of the agreement, and so the sale is well under way. The field with the cave will be sold to Abraham, and only the price needs to be established.

The price set and met (vss. 14-16): One must appreciate the beauty of the near-eastern culture to enjoy this final act of negotiation. Ephron was nobody’s fool. He persists in his offer to give Abraham the land free of charge, but he also places a value on the “gift” that is offered. This accomplishes two things: it names the price, yet in a very generous way, and it makes it almost impossible for Abraham to bargain over the price. If Ephron is so generous as to offer to give the land to Abraham, how could Abraham be so small as to dicker over the price? Abraham paid the price, and both men went away with what they had hoped for.

A final summary (vss. 17-20): Again in what seems to be very technical and legal terminology, the transaction is outlined. As was the custom, even the trees are mentioned in the deeding of the property (verse 17). A burial site was thus procured, and Abraham proceeded to lay his wife’s body to rest.


For Abraham the purchase of the cave of Machpelah was an expression of his faith in God. The writer to the Hebrews alluded to this when he wrote:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16).

By determining that Sarah, and later he and his descendants, would be buried in Canaan, Abraham “staked his claim” in the land which God had promised. The land where he would be buried was to be the homeland of his descendants. The place that God had promised him was the place where he must be buried.

Jeremiah expressed a similar faith when he purchased the field of Anathoth (Jeremiah 32:6ff). While God was to judge His people for their sins by driving them out of the promised land, so He would bring them back when they repented. The purchase of the field of Anathoth evidenced Jeremiah’s conviction that God would do as He had promised (Jeremiah 32:9-15).

Abraham’s purchase not only exemplified his hope for a better country, a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:16), it also involved him more deeply in the present world in which he lived as a stranger and sojourner. Sojourners didn’t own property, but now Abraham did, of necessity. Strangers and sojourners do not have as great an involvement or obligation as do citizens and property owners. Abraham’s purchase gave him a “dual citizenship,” so to speak. Let me suggest how this was so.

We are told that according to Hittite law Abraham would not have been obligated to the king had he only purchased the cave at Machpelah rather than the field and the cave.200 By acquiring property as he did, Abraham thus deepened his commitment of faith in God but also extended his worldly obligations. I think this is significant. In his first epistle Peter instructs Christians on their attitude and conduct toward this present world in light of the fact that we are strangers and pilgrims:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king (I Peter 2:11-17).

Christians are citizens in two worlds, not just one. While our inheritance is in heaven, “imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away” (I Peter 1:4), we have obligations in this present world. We must submit to earthly authorities and institutions (I Peter 2:11ff). We must also obey the laws of the land and pay our taxes (Romans 13:1-7).

Christians have often been accused of being “so heavenly minded, they are of no earthly good.” If I understand the Bible correctly, our heavenly mind is what makes us useful in the present. Abraham lived in the present in the light of the future. His future inheritance did not lessen his present obligations; it established his priorities. The fact that he would inherit the land of Canaan and “possess the gates of his enemies” (Genesis 22:17) did not mean he would be kept from purchasing property and bowing before constituted authority (cf. 23:7,12) and this at the very gates of those whom God would later put under his authority (15:20).

Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot provided Israel with roots in the promised land. Jacob, who died in Egypt, was buried in the cave which Abraham purchased (Genesis 50:1-14). When the Israelites were freed from Egyptian bondage, where else would they return but to their fatherland?

Interestingly, the land of Canaan had not yet been possessed when this book (Genesis) was written. But those who received it from the hand of Moses were those who looked forward to its conquest. None other than Caleb was given the privilege of taking the land which Abraham had purchased as an “earnest of his inheritance” (cf. Joshua 14:13). What motivation this story must have provided for the armies of Israel as they marched into Canaan to possess it!

For men today this event out of ancient biblical history has numerous implications:

(1) It indicates that in the Old Testament as well as in the New the grave is the symbol of hope to a true believer in God. The cave of Machpelah stood for centuries as a monument to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The empty tomb of our Lord guarantees the Christian that the grave is not our final resting place but an abode for the body until Christ returns for His own (I Corinthians 15; I Thessalonians 4).

What does the grave mean to you, my friend? Is it the end or only the beginning? Your relationship to the God of Abraham and to His Son, Jesus Christ, makes the difference.

(2) Where we invest our money demonstrates where we plan to spend our future. One of the five men martyred for his faith in Ecuador, Jim Elliot, once said: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” Abraham believed that God’s promises were true. His investment in Canaan was the best purchase he ever made. In New Testament terminology he “laid up his treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). The way we spend our money indicates the reality of our faith.

(3) The covenant of God should be the basis for our actions and decisions. Abraham’s faith was in God, but it was not a nebulous, groundless faith. He believed in the covenant which God had made and had often reiterated. It was Abraham’s faith in God’s ability to keep His covenant which prompted his purchase of the plot where he was to be buried.

Often times people ask why we remember the Lord’s table every week. The answer is at least two-fold. First, this is what our Lord commanded and the early church practiced (Luke 22:14-20; I Corinthians 11:23ff; Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Second, this is a weekly reminder of the covenant which our Lord has made with us—the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). Our actions and decisions should be governed by the assurance that this covenant will be fully realized in the life of the believer. That, my friend, is something to be reminded of frequently.

(4) The burial of a loved one is a significant opportunity for a Christian to publicly express his faith. Frequently we are told that the purchase of the burial plot was done before the eyes of the sons of Heth (23:3,7,9,10, etc.). The significance of Abraham’s actions did not pass these Canaanites by. They knew him as a “prince of God.”

The occasion of the death of a loved one should always be viewed as an opportunity for Christian witness. What we say at such times is very important, but let us not forget that what we do is also vital. Abraham’s deeds in chapter 23 are as significant as his declarations.

While what I have to say at this point is only inferential at best, I believe it to be true. There is a very real need to balance two factors. Twice Abraham spoke of burying his dead “out of his sight” (23:4,8). The body of a deceased saint is not to be venerated or treated as some kind of sacred object. The dead body is only the shell in which the soul has abided. The body must be laid aside, out of sight. Some would do well to consider this.

On the other hand, the body is that which God has fashioned (Psalm 139:13-16), it has served as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 6:15, 19-20); it will be raised again and be transformed incorruptible (I Corinthians 15:35-49). Because of this the body should not be disposed of in such a way as to disregard the value it has been given by its Creator.

While we may decry the “high cost of death,” let me suggest that some may overreact to burial costs in such a way as to affect their Christian testimony. Unbelievers, who see no life after death, no resurrection, may well dispose of the body as cheaply and irreverently as possible. The Christian should give serious thought to this, however.

I do not think that Abraham was extravagant in the burial of his wife, but neither do I believe that he sought a bargain basement burial. Most scholars suspect the price of that plot was high.201 Abraham did not bargain over the price. He did not, excuse the expression, “Jew Ephron down.” The motivation of Abraham as well as his moderation should be considered in relationship to funerals. While our faith does not need frills nor our consciences silver-inlaid coffins, we must be careful not to reflect the values of a decadent society as we bury our dead.

200 “The situation is clarified by the Hittite law code found at Hettueas, Bogaskoi, in Asia Minor, which throws considerable light on the transaction. Law 46 stipulates that the holder of an entire field shall render the feudal obligations, but not he who holds only a small part. A later version stipulates that notice of the sale be made to the king and only those feudal services stipulated at that time are to be given. According to Law 47 lands held as gifts from the king do not incur feudal obligations, while sale of all a craftsman’s lands do carry it. On the other hand, if the larger portion of his holding is sold, the obligation passes to the buyer. One who usurps a field or is given a field by the people bears the obligation. By these various conditions it is seen that the land itself bears the obligation which posses to the new buyer.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 193.

201 There is much difference of opinion as to how high a price Abraham paid for the burial plot. Both the relative value of the silver and the size of the field are unknown. Since Moses did not state that the price was exceptionally high, we should draw such conclusions with caution.
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25. How to Find a Godly Wife (Genesis 24:1-67)


Ann Landers received a letter from a reader that went like this:

Dear Ann Landers:

Why would any husband adore a lazy, messy, addlebrained wife? Her house looks as if they’d moved in yesterday. She never cooks a meal. Everything is in cans or frozen. Her kids eat sent-in food. Yet this slob’s husband treats her like a Dresden doll. He calls her “Poopsie” and “Pet,” and covers the telephone with a blanket when he goes to work so she can get her rest. On weekends he does the laundry and the marketing.

I get up at 6 a.m. and fix my husband’s breakfast. I make his shirts because the ones in the stores “don’t fit right.” If my husband ever emptied a wastebasket, I’d faint. Once when I phoned him at work and asked him to pick up a loaf of bread on his way home, he swore at me for five minutes. The more you do for a man, the less he appreciates you. I feel like an unpaid housekeeper, not a wife. What goes on anyway?

—The Moose (That’s what he calls me.)

Ann’s response is classic. She responded:

A marriage license is not a guarantee that the marriage is going to work, any more than a fishing license assures that you’ll catch fish. It merely gives you the legal right to try.202

I share this bit of sage wisdom with you because it surfaces a very pertinent caution as we approach Genesis 24. We all know that this chapter, the longest in the book of Genesis, is devoted to a description of the process of finding a wife for Isaac. Finding the right woman is absolutely essential. But as important as this is, finding the right person does not insure a godly marriage. As Ann Landers put it, “It only gives us the right to try.”

Excessive emphasis on finding the right wife or husband can have some disastrous effects for those already married. It is possible for someone to conclude that they have married the wrong person. I know of one well-known preacher who strongly implies that if you have not married the right person, you should get a divorce and try again.

We who are married need to study this passage for what it teaches us on the subject of servanthood and seeking the will of God. When it comes to the subject of marriage, there is much here to instruct us as parents who wish to prepare our children for marriage. But so far as our own partners are concerned, we need to place far more emphasis upon the matter of being the right partner rather than upon finding the right partner.

The thrust of our study, then, will be to study the search for Isaac’s wife within its cultural and historical setting and then to look into the implications of this passage for servanthood, seeking God’s will, and marriage.

The Servant Commissioned

Sarah had been dead three years, and Abraham was now 140 years old, “advanced in age” as Moses described it.203 While death was still 35 years away, Abraham had no reason to presume that he would live to such an age, so he began to make preparations for his passing. His greatest concern was the marriage of Isaac to a woman who would help him raise a godly seed, even as God had previously made clear:

For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him (Genesis 18:19).

Abraham entrusted the responsibility of finding a wife for Isaac to no one less than his oldest and most trusted servant. It is possible, though not stated, that this servant was Eliezer of Damascus. If this is true, the greatness of this servant is the more striking, for his task was for the benefit of the son of Abraham, who would inherit all that might have been his:

And Abram said, ‘O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ (Genesis 15:2)

The devotion of this servant to his master and to his master’s God is one of the highlights of the chapter. His piety, prayer life, and practical wisdom set a high standard for the believer in any age.

The servant, whatever his name, was commissioned to secure a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Only two stipulations were stated by Abraham: the wife must not be a Canaanite (24:3), and Isaac must not, under any circumstances, be taken back to Mesopotamia, from whence God had called him (24:6).

These two requirements promote separation while preventing isolation. Isaac’s presence in the land of Canaan, even when he did not possess it, evidenced his faith in God and developed devotion to and dependence upon God alone. It also served as a means of proclaiming to the Canaanites that Yahweh alone was God. Abraham and his offspring were missionaries in this sense.

While they lived among the Canaanites, they were not to become one with them by marriage. To move back to Mesopotamia would be isolation. To live among them but to marry a God-fearer would serve to insulate Isaac from too close a relation with these pagans. Thus, a wife must be secured from among the relatives of Abraham while, at the same time, Isaac was not allowed to return there himself.

The basis for Abraham’s decision to secure a wife for his son and the stipulations made are explained in verse 7:

The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me, and who swore to me, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there (Genesis 24:7).

First and foremost, Abraham’s actions were based upon revelation. God had promised to make Abraham a great nation and to bless all nations through him. It was not difficult to conclude that Abraham’s son must himself marry and bear children. Thus, while not a specific command, it was the will of God for Isaac to marry. Furthermore, it was determined that Isaac must remain in the land of Canaan. God had promised “this land” (verse 7) to Abraham and his offspring.

In addition, Abraham instructed his servant to seek out a wife for his son with the assurance that God would give divine guidance. “His angel” would be sent on ahead to prepare the way for the servant. Abraham thus acted upon revelation he had previously received, assured that additional guidance would be granted when needed. His faith was not presumption, however, for he allowed for the possibility that this mission might not be God’s means of securing a godly wife for Isaac: “… But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there” (Genesis 24:8).

What a wonderful example of faith in God as One Who guides His people. Abraham sent his servant, assured that God had led by His Word. Abraham sought a wife for his son, assured that God had prepared the way and would make that way clear. Abraham also allowed for the fact that God might not provide a wife in the way he had planned to procure her and thus made allowance for divine intervention in some other way.

While the oath that was sworn is unusual, occurring elsewhere only in Genesis 47:29, it is, without a doubt, a genuine act, probably common to that culture and time.204 We do know from the context that it was a solemn oath and one that must have been taken seriously by the servant. The significance of this mission is thereby underscored.

The Search Conducted

Imagine for a moment that you had been given the commission of Abraham’s servant. How would you possibly go about finding an acceptable wife for Isaac? What an awesome task this must have been. It may have appeared to be like finding a needle in a haystack. Naturally you would make adequate preparations, as the servant did, and journey to the land from which Abraham had come where his relatives still lived. The “city of Nahor” (verse 10) may have been Haran or near it (cf. 11:31-32).

A younger servant would probably have gone about this task in a very different manner. I can imagine him coming into town, advertising the fact that he worked for a very wealthy foreigner with a handsome, eligible son who was to be his only heir. His intention to find a bride would have been publicized, and only one lucky girl was to be chosen. To select such a bride the servant might have held a “Miss Mesopotamia” contest. Only those who were the most beautiful and talented would be allowed to enter, and the winner would become the wife of Isaac.

How different was the methodology of this godly servant. When his small caravan came to the “city of Nahor,” he immediately sought the will and guidance of God in prayer:

And he said, “O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today, and show lovingkindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I am standing by the spring, and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water; now may it be that the girl to whom I say, ‘Please let down your jar so that I may drink,’ and who answers, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels also’—may she be the one whom Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac; and by this I shall know that Thou hast shown lovingkindness to my master” (Genesis 24:12-14).

Wisdom had brought him this far. He was in the right city, the “city of Nahor,” and he was at a good spot to observe the women of the city as they came to the spring for water. But how could he possibly discern the most important quality of a godly character? Months, even years, of observation might be required to discern the character of the women he interviewed.

The plan which this servant devised testifies to his wisdom and maturity. In one sense it seems to be a kind of “fleece” (cf. Judges 6:36-40) put out before the Lord. It would serve as a sign to the servant that this was the right woman to approach for his master as a wife for Isaac. In reality, the servant sought to test the woman rather than God. Camels are known to be very thirsty creatures, especially after a long trek in the desert. To give the servant a drink was one thing. To give a drink to the men and then to satisfy the thirst of the camels was an entirely different matter. The servant did not plan to ask the woman for water for his camels, only for himself. She could thus meet his request quite easily, while sensing no obligation to meet the total needs of the caravan. Any woman who was willing to “go the extra mile” in this matter was one of unusual character.

It was a wonderful plan, and the servant committed it to God in prayer. This unusual request reflected deep insight into human nature as well as dependence upon divine guidance. His petition was not to be denied. Indeed, it was answered even before the request was completed:

And it came about before he had finished speaking, that behold, Rebekah who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder. And the girl was very beautiful, a virgin, and no man had had relations with her; and she went down to the spring and filled her jar, and came up (Genesis 24:15-16).

Rebekah was, indeed, the right woman for Isaac. She was the daughter of Bethuel, Abraham’s nephew. Beyond this, she was a beautiful woman who had maintained her sexual purity—essential to the preservation of a godly seed. Seemingly, she was the first to appear and the only woman there at the moment. Everything the servant saw suggested that this woman was a candidate for the test he had devised.

Running to the woman, he asked for a drink. She quickly responded, lowering her jar and then returning time after time for more until the camels were satisfied. Not until the camels were thoroughly cared for did the servant speak up. While the woman’s evident beauty may have satisfied the standards of lesser men, the test was to be allowed to run its course. Adorning the woman with golden gifts, the servant proceeded to determine her ancestry. When this qualification was satisfied, the servant bowed in worship, giving the glory to God for His guidance and blessing:

Then the man bowed low and worshiped the LORD. And he said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His lovingkindness and His truth toward my master; as for me, the LORD has guided me in the way to the house of my master’s brothers’ (Genesis 24:26-27).

Securing Parental Consent

While the servant worshipped, Rebekah ran on ahead to report what had happened and to begin preparations for the guests that would be coming. Rebekah’s brother Laban is introduced to us here.205 His devotion to material wealth is suggested by his response:

And it came about that when he saw the ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s wrists, and when he heard the words of Rebekah his sister, saying, ‘This is what the man said to me,’ he went to the man; and behold, he was standing by the camels at the spring. And he said, ‘Come in, blessed of the LORD! Why do you stand outside since I have prepared the house, and a place for the camels?’ (Genesis 24:30-31)

Having found the woman who should be Isaac’s wife, the servant now had to convince the family that Abraham’s son Isaac was the right man for Rebekah. The fact that Rebekah would need to move far away was an obstacle which must be overcome by strong argumentation. This delicate task was skillfully handled by the servant. The urgency of his mission was indicated by his refusal to eat until the purpose of his journey was explained.

First, the servant identified himself as a representative of Abraham, Bethuel’s uncle (verse 34). This would have set aside many objections of these relatives, who were concerned to protect the purity of Rebekah’s descendants. Then the success of Abraham was reported. Abraham had not been foolish to leave Haran, for God had prospered him greatly. By inference, this testified to Isaac’s ability to provide abundantly for the needs of Rebekah, who was not living on a poverty level herself (cf. verses 59, 61). Isaac was said to be the sole heir of Abraham’s wealth (verse 36).

If the law of proportion can teach us anything, it must be that what is described in verses 37-49 is much more vital to the servant’s purposes than verses 34-36. The most compelling argument he could possibly provide was evidence that it was the will of God for Rebekah to become the wife of Isaac. He accomplished this by recounting all that took place from his commissioning by Abraham to the conclusion of his search at the spring. The conclusion of the servant’s presentation is compelling:

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. So now if you are going to deal kindly and truly with my master, tell me, and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left (Genesis 24:48-49).

The forcefulness of the servant’s presentation was not missed. Laban and his father responded:

“… The matter comes from the LORD; so we cannot speak to you bad or good. Behold, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the LORD has spoken” (Genesis 24:50-51).

With permission granted for Rebekah to marry Isaac, the dowry gifts were brought forth and presented to the members of the family (vs. 53). Again the servant acknowledged the hand of God in these affairs and worshipped Him gratefully (verse 52). With these matters disposed of, they ate and drank, and the servant and his party spent the night.

In the morning when the servant expressed his desire to be on his way back to his master, Rebekah’s mother and brother expressed their wish to delay her departure. No doubt they knew that they might never see Rebekah again, and so they wished to have some time to say their farewells. The servant, however, pressed them to let her go immediately, and so Rebekah was consulted on the matter. Since she was willing to leave without delay, they sent her off with a blessing.

This blessing, combined with the response to the servant’s claim that God had led him to Rebekah, helps me to understand why Abraham insisted that Isaac’s wife be obtained from his close relatives in Mesopotamia. To some extent Bethuel and his household must have shared a faith in the God of Abraham. They quickly responded to the evidence of divine guidance as recounted by the servant (verses 37-49, 50-51). Their blessing on Rebekah is, in my estimation, a reflection of their faith in Abraham’s God and His covenant. The blessing they pronounced too closely parallels God’s covenant promise to Abraham to be coincidental:206



“And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:16)

“May you, our sister, become thousands of ten thousands, And may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them” (Gen. 24:60)


“Indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies” (Gen. 22:17)

The Return

The mission had been accomplished, and now Rebekah walks in the steps of her great uncle Abraham. She, like he, was led by God to leave her homeland and relatives to go to the land of Canaan.

Isaac had been in the field meditating207 as the evening hours approached (verse 63). As he lifted up his eyes he beheld the caravan approaching. While it is somewhat conjectural, I believe that Isaac, like the servant earlier, had been praying about this task of finding a wife. Isaac could not have been unaware of the mission on which the servant had been sent, and surely Isaac could not have been uninterested in its outcome. For this reason I believe that Isaac was engaged in prayer for the servant that his mission would prosper. As in the case of the servant, Isaac’s prayer was answered even before it was completed.

Rebekah looked with interest upon the man who was approaching them. She asked the servant about him and learned that this man was her future husband. Appropriately, she covered herself with her veil.

Verse 66 may seem incidental, but I think it reports a very essential step in the process of seeking a wife for Isaac. Abraham was convinced that Isaac needed a wife like Rebekah. The servant, too, was assured that Rebekah was the one for Isaac and had succeeded in convincing her family of this fact. However, let us not overlook the fact that Isaac, too, needed to be assured that Rebekah was the woman God had provided for him. The servant’s report, while not repeated, must have been almost identical to the one recorded in verses 37-48. We know from verse 67 that Isaac was assured that Rebekah was God’s good and perfect gift for him.

Much is compressed into the final verse of this chapter. Isaac took Rebekah into his mother’s tent, and she became his wife. His love for her blossomed and continued to grow. His marriage gave Isaac consolation for the death of his mother.


Genesis 24 is a chapter that is rich in lessons for our lives, but I would like to focus upon three avenues of truth contained in our text: servanthood, guidance, and marriage.


Some have seen in Genesis 24 a type of the Trinity. Abraham is a type of the Father, Isaac of the Son, and the servant of the Holy Spirit. While this may be a good devotional thought, it does not seem to me to be the heart of the message for Christians today. Also, the analogy seems to break down frequently.

Rather than seeing him as a type of the Spirit, I see the servant as a model for every Christian, for servanthood is one of the fundamental characteristics of Christian service:

“But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

The servant of Abraham was marked by his eager obedience and his attention to the instructions given him. He diligently pursued his task, not eating or resting until it was completed. There was a sense of urgency, perhaps a realization that his master believed there might not be much time left. At least he was convinced that his master felt the matter was one of urgency. The servant’s diplomacy was evident in his dealings with Rebekah and her relatives. Perhaps the two most striking features of this servant are his wisdom and devotion. Abraham had obviously given this man great authority, for he was in control of all he possessed (24:2). In this task he was also given a great deal of freedom to use his own discretion in finding a godly wife. Only two lines of boundary were drawn: he could not take a wife from the Canaanites, and he could not take Isaac back to Mesopotamia. The plan which the servant devised to determine the character of the women at the spring was a masterpiece.

Perhaps the most striking feature of all was his devotion to his master and to his master’s Master. Prayer and worship marked this man out as being head and shoulders above his peers. He was a man with a personal trust in God and who gave God the glory. This godly servant leaves us with an example in servanthood surpassed only by the “suffering servant,” the Messiah, our Lord, Jesus Christ.


Most of us have already found the mate for our married lives. As a result we should consider this passage in the broader context of the guidance which God gives to His children. Perhaps no Old Testament passage illustrates the guiding hand of God as well as this portion in the book of Genesis.

First, we see that God directs men to get under way through the Scriptures. Nowhere is Abraham given a direct imperative to seek a wife for his son, but he does act on the basis of a clear inference from revelation. Abraham was to become a mighty nation through his son Isaac. Obviously Isaac must have children, and this necessitated a wife. Since his offspring would need to be faithful to God and to keep His covenant (cf. 18:19), the wife would need to be a godly woman. This implied that she could not be a Canaanite. Also, since God had promised “this land,” Isaac must not return to Mesopotamia.

Second, we see that God guides His children once under way by “his angel” (24:7). I believe that all true Christians are led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14). He prepares the way for us to walk in His will and to sense His leading. We must proceed in faith just as Abraham did, knowing that God does guide.

Third, the will of God was discerned through prayer. The servant submitted a plan to God whereby the woman who was to be Isaac’s wife would become evident. This was no fleece but rather a test of character. The servant could thereby determine the character of the women he would meet. God providentially (through circumstances) brought the right woman to the servant, and by her generous act of watering the camels she evidenced that she was His choice for Isaac’s wife.

Finally, the will of God was discerned through wisdom. No doubt Abraham sent this servant, his oldest and most trusted employee, because of his discernment. He obediently went to the “city of Nahor” and stationed himself beside the well where all the women of the city must come daily. Humbly he prayed for guidance, but wisely he proposed a plan which would test the character of the women he would encounter. There was no spectacular revelation, nor did there need to be. Wisdom could discern a woman of great worth.


For those of us who are not married or who are and have children who must face this choice, a number of principles undergird this story of the selection of a godly wife for Isaac.

First, a godly mate should be sought only when it is certain that marriage will achieve the purposes God has for our lives. Isaac needed a wife because he must become a husband and father to fulfill his part in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant. While it is the norm for men to marry, let us not forget that the Bible informs us that it is sometimes God’s purpose to keep some of His servants single (I Corinthians 7:8-24). Marriage should only be sought for those who will achieve God’s purpose by having a mate and, perhaps, a family.

Second, if we would have a godly mate we must wait for God’s time. How often I have witnessed men and women marrying hastily, fearing that the time for marriage was quickly passing them by. They married those who were unbelievers or uncommitted because they concluded that anyone was better than no one. Isaac was 40 years old when he married. By some standards that was about 10 years late (cf. Genesis 11:14,18,22). It is well worth waiting for the mate of God’s choice.

Third, if we would have a godly mate we must look in the right place. Abraham instructed his servant not to look for a wife among the Canaanites. He knew that his relatives feared God and that their offspring would share a common faith. That is where the servant went to look, no matter if it were many dusty miles distant.

I do not know why Christians think they will find a godly mate in a singles bar or some other such place. I do not fault any Christian for attending a Christian college or attending a church group with the hope of finding a marriage partner there. If we wish a godly mate, let us look where godly Christians should be. If God does not provide one in this way, He can certainly do so in His own sovereign way.

Fourth, if you would have a godly mate you must seek godly qualities. I notice that Abraham’s servant did not evaluate Rebekah on the basis of her physical appearance. If he had she would have passed with flying colors (cf. 24:16). To the servant beauty was a desirable thing, but it was not fundamental. The woman he sought must be one who trusted in the God of Abraham and who had maintained sexual purity. Fundamentally, she must be a woman who manifested Christian character as reflected in her response to the request for water. This servant knew from experience and wisdom the qualities which are most important to a successful marriage. Just being a woman who believed in the God of Abraham was not sufficient. Just because one is a Christian does not make them a good candidate for marriage.

Fifth, he who would find a godly mate should be willing to heed the counsel of older and wiser Christians. Do you notice how little Isaac had to do with the process of finding a wife? Isaac, if left to himself, may never have found Rebekah. The first pretty girl or the first woman to profess a faith in God might have seemed adequate. The servant was unwilling to settle for second rate. Not only were Abraham and his servant a part of the process, but Rebekah’s family also had to be convinced of God’s leading. Anyone who fails to heed the counsel of godly Christians who are older and wiser is on the path to heartache.

Finally, he who would have a godly mate must be willing to put emotional feelings last. Look again with me at verse 67:

Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death (Genesis 24:67).

Do you notice that love came last, not first, in this chapter? Isaac learned to love his wife in time. Love came after marriage, not before it. That leads me to a principle which many Christian counselors often stress: ROMANTIC LOVE IS NEVER THE BASIS FOR MARRIAGE—MARRIAGE IS THE BASIS FOR ROMANTIC LOVE.

Here we see a good reason for a Christian making the decision never to date an unbeliever. A Christian should carefully screen any person before he or she would even consider going out on a date with them. Dating frequently leads to emotional involvement and physical attraction. Romantic love is a wonderful emotional feeling, but it will never sustain a marriage. Do not put yourself in a situation where romantic love can grow until you are certain that you want it to grow.

Everything in our culture runs contrary to this principle. Romantic feelings are exploited by Madison Avenue and are continually set before us in an exciting light on the television screen. Love is a wonderful thing, a gift from God, but let love come last, not first, if we would find a godly mate.

I believe that God has a special person chosen from eternity past as a mate for those for whom He has purposed marriage. I believe that God will surely guide us to that mate by using Scripture, prayer, counsel, wisdom, and providential intervention. I believe that we will be able to recognize this person, convinced most of all by the fact that they have manifested a godly character. May God help us to encourage our children and our friends to trust God and obey Him in the selection of a mate. For those of us who are married, may God enable us to be the godly mate that His Word says we should be.

202 Ann Landers, “Men vs. Women--and Vice Versa,” Reader’s Digest, March, 1969, p. 59.

203 A nearly identical expression is to be found in Genesis 18:11, referring to Abraham’s agedness at 100. Later, in 25:8 Abraham is said to have died at a “ripe old age” of 175.

204 Some explanations of this oath have gone beyond the facts. The remarks of Stigers seem to reflect the most careful and balanced explanation: “Genesis 24:2 and 47:29 have a strange form of the oath, the hand of the one from whom an oath is taken being put under the thigh of the person taking the oath. No data from contemporary times have as yet come to light to explain this action, but conceivably it might appear one day from the land of Haran from which Abraham came, or perhaps from Canaan. But--and this is important--no explanation of the meaning of the manner is presented; however, it does appear to represent a serious, important matter going beyond the casual promise. It is related not to show its importance, but as part of an understood, legitimate custom, though unexplained, which no second party legitimately could refuse, and therefore we must perceive this to be an eyewitness account.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 16.

205 Students of Scripture have observed that Laban, the brother, seems to wield more authority than Bethuel, the father. Stigers remarks help explain this phenomenon:

The response of the family is interesting, for not the father, but the brother, speaks first. We may conclude then, that Laban has the stronger position and a definite function in the family equal to that of the father. Afterward, it was Laban and the girl’s mother who received gifts. The Nuzu tablets throw light on the arrangement. What is seen in Rebekah’s household is a fratriarchy or the exercise of family authority in Hurrian society by which one son has jurisdiction over his brothers and sisters. So Laban with his mother decides to put the matter of prompt departure up to Rebekah (v. 58). This independence of action is also reflected in the Nuzu documents concerning the wife of one Hurazzi who said, ‘With my consent my brother Akkuleni gave me as wife to Hurazzi.’ This parallels the biblical incident as to circumstances of the question to the bride, the decision by Laban to ask her, and her answer. (Stigers, Genesis, p. 201.)

206 I must therefore disagree with Kidner, who views the similarity as accidental or unintentional: “The family of Rebekah little knew that their conventional blessing echoed God’s pregnant words to Abraham (22:17).” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 149. Rather, I would concur with Stigers, who writes: “When they called for a myriad of thousands for Rebekah, they were asking for boundless numbers of God’s people, in harmony with 12:2a and 22:17. When they spoke of descendants possessing the gates of their enemies, they were calling for, even predicting, the ultimate triumph of the people of God, the Israelites (cf. Rev. 4:10; 12:5; 20:4). It is thus seen why Abraham sent to Padan-Aram for a wife for Isaac: these people shared the same hope.” Stigers, Genesis, p. 201.

In the light of Joshua 24:2, we must not make too much of the “faith” of Abraham’s relatives in Mesopotamia: “. . . Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘From ancient times your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.’” We know, for example, that Laban possessed household gods, which Rachel took when Jacob left to return to Canaan (Genesis 31:30-32). Nevertheless, it seems that Bethuel and Laban acknowledged the God of Abraham (cf. 24:51) and were thus somewhat less affected by the pagan religions than the Canaanites.

207 “The verb translated meditate (suah) is found as yet only here, so its meaning is uncertain. But as LXX understood it so, and a similar form siah can mean this, the translation is eminently reasonable.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 149.
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26. The Principle of Divine Election (Genesis 25:1-34)


During my first full year of teaching school I was chosen to be the representative from our school to the board of the district teacher’s association. Unfortunately that year there was a rather fierce battle over teachers’ salaries, and I found myself right in the middle of it. I chose to side with the moderate majority who were willing to accept the offer of the school board, an offer that was very close to what we had asked for. A small minority of angry young teachers decided that they would not settle for anything less than all they had demanded.

The matter came to a head when all the teachers gathered to vote on the issue. I had told the chairman of the meeting that I intended to propose that we accept the school board’s offer. This meant that the opposition would have to defeat my motion before submitting theirs—something almost impossible to accomplish. The chairman knew who those of the minority were who opposed this and that they would attempt to get their motion on the floor first. When the critical moment finally came, several quickly rose to their feet, seeking the floor. I rose also, but more deliberately than the others. I shall never forget the smug, triumphant feeling of having the chairman call upon me first, to the groans of the few hostile members of the association.

The chairman obviously called upon me because he knew that I would submit a motion that reflected the desires of the majority of the teachers. In doing this he effectively defeated the rebel faction with one parliamentary blow. Some people view the doctrine of divine election as operating in the same way that I have explained the events of that teachers’ meeting years ago. God, like the chairman of the meeting, knows who is going to do what, and on the basis of His prior knowledge He chooses the person who will do what He desires. The chosen under such a system may feel the same smugness about their “calling” as I did on that afternoon when I was recognized by the chairman.

Another view of election places the matter almost entirely in man’s hands. In its most blatant form it is said: God votes for us; Satan votes against us; and we cast the deciding vote.

Neither of these views is completely consistent with the biblical doctrine of election. No Old Testament passage puts the whole matter into its proper perspective more clearly than Genesis 25. I can confidently say this because the Apostle Paul chose to use the events of this chapter in Romans 9 as the best illustration of the doctrine of divine election. In our lesson we shall see the relationship between God’s choices and man’s conduct, between the divine will and the human will.

Abraham’s Death
and His Descendants

Certainly what we find in the first verse of chapter 25 is unexpected: “Now Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah.”

Over the centuries a number of Bible scholars have maintained that this marriage between Abraham and Keturah did not take place after the death of Sarah. A number of reasons can be cited in support of this conclusion:

First, the verb translated “took” can as easily be rendered “had taken,” as the margin of the NIV indicates.

Second, Keturah is referred to as a concubine in I Chronicles 1:32, which also fits nicely with the word “concubines” in verse 6 of our passage. A concubine held a position somewhat above that of a slave, yet she was not free, nor did she have the status or rights of a wife. The master did have sexual relations with the concubine. Her children held an inferior status to those born of a wife, but they could be elevated to the position of a full heir at the will of the master. Why would Keturah be called a concubine unless Sarah were still alive and this marriage was of a lesser type?

Third, the sons of this union were said to have been “sent away” (verse 6). This could hardly be true of the children of a full marriage, but it would be completely consistent with the children of a concubine. These children would have been sent away in just the same fashion as Ishmael. According to the Code of Hammurabi the sons of a concubine could be sent away, the compensation for which was the granting of their full freedom.208

Finally, Abraham was said to have been old, beyond having children at age 100 (cf. Genesis 18:11). Paul referred to Abraham as being “as good as dead” (Romans 4:19) so far as bearing children was concerned. Those who are mentioned here would have had to have been born to a man at least 140 years old if Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died and Isaac was married to Rebekah. These children listed in verse 3 would have been more of a miracle than Isaac.

The point of verses 1-6 is to establish the fact that Abraham was, in fact, the father of many nations, but that it was Isaac through whom the blessings and promises of the Abrahamic Covenant would be realized. Thus the promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:4 was fulfilled: “As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations.”

Consistent with his faith in the promises of God, Abraham gave gifts to his other children and sent them off, out of Isaac’s way (verse 6).

After a rich and full life Abraham died at the age of 175. This, too, was in fulfillment of the word of God to Abraham: “And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).

One wonders if Abraham did not include Ishmael among those who received gifts while he was living (cf. verse 6). Nevertheless, Ishmael did return to bury his father in cooperation with Isaac (verse 9). At least a temporary truce was made to facilitate the burial of their father. They buried him in the cave of Machpelah in the field that Abraham had purchased for Sarah, himself, and their descendants (cf. Genesis 23).

Although Abraham was dead, the purposes and promises of God remained in effect. In verse 11 Moses reminds us of this truth: “And it came about after the death of Abraham, that God blessed his son Isaac; and Isaac lived by Beer-lahai-roi.

Through Isaac the covenantal promises were to be carried on. The work of God continues, even when the saints pass away. The torch has been passed from father to son, from Abraham to Isaac.

Ishmael’s Death
and His Descendants

If the first verses of chapter 25 demonstrate the faithfulness of God in keeping the promises of Genesis 17:4, then Genesis 25:12-18 reveals God’s fulfillment of Genesis 17:20:

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

Abraham had always had a special place in his heart for his first son Ishmael. Only with reluctance and under great pressure did Abraham send this son away. Abraham would have been content for God’s purposes and promises to have been fulfilled in Ishmael. He petitioned God to look with favor upon this boy (17:18). God refused to substitute this child of self-effort for the child of promise, but He did promise to make him a great nation. Verses 13-16 record the names of the sons of Ishmael, who were the twelve promised princes. Once again God kept His promise to His servant Abraham.

Ishmael died at the age of 137 and was buried. Notice that he was not said to have been placed in the cave of Machpelah, for this was a monument of hope for the people of the promise. The land of Canaan was not to be the possession of Ishmael nor of his descendants; rather we are told:

And they settled from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt as one goes toward Assyria; he settled in defiance of all his relatives (Genesis 25:18).

In this verse one more promise is shown to be fulfilled, the promise God made to Hagar years before:

And he will be a wild donkey of a man, His hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand will be against him; And he will live to the east of all his brothers (Genesis 16:12).

The Descendants of Isaac

The process of election has been apparent in the previous verses. God chose Sarah, not Hagar or Keturah, to be the mother of the child of promise. God likewise chose Isaac long before he was ever born to be the heir of Abraham. While Abraham had several wives and many children, only Isaac was to be the one through whom the promised blessings would come. In verses 19-26 we see that the process of election continues. Here it is Jacob who is designated as the child of promise as opposed to his twin brother Esau, the one who by a natural course of events would have been the heir of promise.

Isaac married Rebekah when he was 40, but it was 20 years later before she bore him children. Isaac interceded with God on Rebekah’s behalf, and she became pregnant in answer to his prayers (verse 21). During her pregnancy Rebekah was perplexed by the intense struggle209 that took place within her womb, so she inquired of God to determine the reason.210 The answer from the Lord verified the significance of the activity within Rebekah’s womb:

And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

Without all the sophisticated medical tests employed today, God informed Rebekah that she was to give birth to twins. Each of the children would be the father of a nation of people. Of these two nations, one would prevail over the other. Of these two sons, the older would not, as was the custom, become preeminent. Normally, the first-born son would have been the heir through whom the covenant blessings would have passed. While the father could designate a younger son to be the owner of the birthright (cf. Genesis 48:13-20), this was the exception, not the rule. Also, the oldest son could sell his birthright, as Esau did.211

This prophecy is a very significant revelation not only for Rebekah but also for Christians in our age because it indicates the principle of divine election. Before the birth of the children God determined that it would be the younger child who would possess the birthright and thus be the heir of Isaac so far as the covenant promises were concerned.

In Romans 9 the Apostle Paul referred to this incident as an illustration of the principle of election:

And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac, for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, ‘The older will serve the younger’ (Romans 9:10-12).

While we must acknowledge that God in His omniscience knew all of the deeds of both these sons from eternity past, Paul says that the choice of Jacob over Esau had nothing to do with their works. Jacob was chosen in the womb and without regard to the works he would do in the future. In other words, God’s election212 was not based upon “foreknowledge”213 as it is sometimes taught. God’s choice was determined by His will, not by man’s works. Personally, I think that Esau was the more likeable of the two. (At least Isaac would agree with me on this point.)

The events surrounding the birth of the twins gave further evidence to the truth of the words of the Lord spoken to Rebekah before their birth:

When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them (Genesis 25:24-26).

Esau was born first, and he came from the womb red and hairy. The Hebrew word to describe the color of Esau sounded similar to Edom and may have prepared the way for his nickname as it was decided in verse 30. The name Esau somewhat resembles the sound of the word meaning ‘hairy.’

Jacob came forth from the womb grasping the heel of his brother Esau. Jacob’s name was suggested by the Hebrew word for ‘heel.’ Later events, such as the barter of the birthright in verses 27-34, indicate that the name, taken in its negative sense, referred to Jacob’s grasping and conniving nature.

The Barter of the Birthright

In the life of Abraham the birth of Ishmael was an event which taught the patriarch that God’s blessings are not wrought by self-effort but by trusting God. In Jacob’s life the incident in which he outwitted his brother into selling his birthright served the same purpose. It was a shrewd bargain that Jacob struck, but it was not the means of bringing about God’s blessing.

In addition to the events surrounding the birth of the twins, three factors played heavily in the relationship of the two boys. First, the boys had very different dispositions. Esau seems to have been a masculine, outdoor-type man who loved to do the things a father could take pride in. He was a skillful hunter, and he knew how to handle himself in the outdoors. In our culture I believe Esau would have been a football hero in high school and college. He might even have played for the Dallas Cowboys. He was a real macho man, the kind of son a father would swell with pride to talk about among his friends.

Jacob was entirely different. While Esau seems to have been aggressive, daring, and flamboyant, Jacob appears to be just the opposite: quiet, pensive, more interested in staying at home than in venturing out and making great physical conquests. Not that he had no ambition to get ahead, quite the contrary; but Jacob couldn’t see the sense in tracking about the wilderness just to bag some game. In the solitude of his tent Jacob could mentally reason out how to get ahead without getting his hands dirty and without taking dangerous risks.

The second factor which tended to separate the two sons was the divided loyalty between their parents. Isaac seems to have been the outdoor-type himself; at least he had an appetite for the wild game that Esau brought home (verse 28). Esau was the kind of son that Isaac could proudly take with him wherever he went. Rebekah, on the other hand, favored Jacob. She probably thought Esau was crude and uncultured. Jacob was a much more refined person, gentle and kind, the type of son a mother would be proud of. Besides, Jacob probably spent more time at home than Esau did. Each parent seems to have identified too much with a particular son, thus creating divisions which would be devastating. This favoritism also brought about disharmony between Isaac and his wife. Later Rebekah was to conspire with Jacob to deceive her husband (chapter 27).

The third factor which Moses recorded for us in chapter 25 was the underhanded means by which Jacob wrested the birthright from his brother. While Esau had been out in the field, Jacob had been at home preparing a stew. Weary and famished, though hardly at death’s door, Esau was enticed by the fragrant aroma of the meal. Esau greedily pled for some of “that red stuff.” Rather than showing his brother the hospitality due even a stranger, Jacob saw this as an opportunity to gain the advantage. Here Jacob’s greedy, grasping disposition rose to the forefront. Without a hint of shame Jacob bartered, “… First sell me your birthright” (25:31). With this Esau’s carnal nature emerged, “… Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” (25:32). With an exaggerated estimation of his physical condition and need and a minimal appreciation for the value of his birthright, Esau was willing to exchange his destiny for a dinner.

Jacob was not willing to let Esau take the occasion as casually as he was inclined to; therefore, he made him swear a solemn oath declaring the sale of the birthright. This done, the meal was served, and Esau went on his way. As Moses concluded his report of this event, we find his estimation of Esau’s character: “… Thus Esau despised his birthright” (25:34). And so it is that the writer to the Hebrews can speak of Esau as a man who has no appreciation whatsoever for spiritual and eternal things:

See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal (Hebrews 12:15-16).


One cannot avoid the fact that this chapter clearly teaches the principle of divine election. Out of all the sons of Abraham, God chose Isaac to be the heir of promise and this even before the birth of the boy (17:21). Isaac, not Ishmael nor Zimran nor Jokshan nor Medan nor any of the other sons of Abraham was to be the heir of promise. Sarah, not Hagar nor Keturah was to be the mother of this child.

God’s choice is not determined by His knowledge of the good works that the chosen will later accomplish. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob all had very visible faults. Their conduct often was not any more sterling than that of any other person. At times others even appeared more righteous than they (cf. Abimelech in Genesis 20). While we are chosen “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:10), it is not because of our good works that we are chosen. Jacob was chosen before his birth without regard to future deeds (Romans 9:11). In theological terminology, God elects men and women unconditionally without regard to that which they will do. That is pure grace.

Some conclude from this fact that those who are not among the elect are forever lost because God did not choose them. There is, of course, truth in this statement (cf. Proverbs 16:4; Revelation 17:8; I Peter 2:6). While election to salvation is never on account of works, election to eternal damnation is. The emphasis of the Word of God is not that men go to Hell because God did not choose them, but that men suffer eternally because they have not chosen God.

That truth is precisely what Moses stressed in this chapter. Throughout these verses the principle of election is evident. And yet, at the conclusion of the account Moses did not report that Esau sold his birthright because God had predetermined this to happen, but because Esau “despised his birthright” (verse 34).

Election is unconditional. God chooses men because of His love and grace, not because of man’s future good deeds. While good works do not give us the reason for a man’s election to a place of blessing in God’s program, a man’s evil deeds are adequate reason for his rejection by God.

Dr. B. B. Warfield has stated this in the clearest fashion:

When Christ stood at the door of Lazarus’ tomb and cried, “Lazarus come forth!” only Lazarus, of all the dead that lay in the gloom of the grave that day in Palestine, or throughout the world, heard his mighty voice which raises the dead, and came forth. Shall we say that the election of Lazarus to be called forth from the tomb consigned all this immense multitude of the dead to hopeless, physical decay? It left them no doubt in the death in which they were holden and to all that comes out of this death. But it was not it which brought death upon them, or which kept them in its power. When God calls out of the human race, lying dead in their trespasses and sins, some here, some there, some everywhere, a great multitude which no man can number, to raise them by His almighty grace out of their death in sin and bring them to glory, his electing grace is glorified in the salvation it works. It has nothing to do with the death of the sinner, but only with the living again of the sinner whom it calls into life. The one and single work of election is salvation.214

In Revelation 16 we are told of the judgement that is poured out upon those who have rejected God and worshipped the beast. These words spoken by the angel of God express the truth that the non-elect receive the judgment they deserve:

And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O holy one, because Thou didst judge these things; for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it” (Revelation 16:5-6).

The message of the Bible is that all of us deserve the eternal wrath of God for our sins (Romans 3:10-18,23; 6:23). The message of the gospel is that God has provided a solution for the sins of man. That solution is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross of Calvary where He bore the punishment that we deserve. He offers us the righteousness we lack (Romans 3:21-26; II Corinthians 5:21). It is true that those who are saved are those whom God has chosen from eternity past (Acts 13:48; 16:14; Ephesians 1:11, etc.). It is also true that all who are saved are those who have personally believed in Jesus Christ as their Substitute and their Savior. Every person who calls upon Him for salvation will be saved.

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

For “Whoever will call upon the name of the LORD will be saved” (Romans 10:13).

Like Isaac, the world in which we live prefers the Esaus and dislikes the Jacobs. The models which the media places before us are not the Jacobs, but the Esaus, the “macho men,” the tough guys. The world says to us, “You only go around once, so you’d better grab all the gusto you can get.” They have taken the words out of Esau’s mouth. They wish us to forget the future, to trade off our eternal destiny for a beer or for our belly or for some short-lived physical pleasure. If it feels good, do it. If it tastes good, eat it. Don’t believe it.

I see in this chapter an example of two wrong responses to the sovereignty of God in the matter of divine election. The first is that of Isaac, who attempted to resist the will of God as it was revealed to his wife Rebekah. While I am not certain that the twins, Jacob and Esau, knew of the election of the younger, I find it hard to imagine that Rebekah did not inform Isaac of this prophecy. In spite of this revelation Isaac persisted to favor Esau, and it would seem from later events that he attempted to pronounce the blessing upon him as well. I believe that just as Abraham attempted to convince God to choose Ishmael for the heir of promise (Genesis 17:18), Isaac hoped that God would change His mind concerning Esau. The lesson came hard, but it was finally learned.

In his last days Jacob (now called Israel) pronounced a blessing upon the two sons of Joseph. Joseph set the two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, before his father with the oldest at his father’s right hand and the youngest at his left. Jacob, however, crossed his hands so that his right hand was laid upon Ephraim’s head rather than upon Manasseh’s. Joseph thought this was a mistake caused by his father’s poor eyesight, and he attempted to rectify the ‘error.’ Jacob then informed his son Joseph that this was no error but an indication that the younger son would be the greater (Genesis 48:8-20). At last Jacob (Israel) had come to accept the fact that God’s election does not necessarily follow human conventions.

Rebekah misapplied the doctrine of election in a different way. I am convinced that she justified her partiality to her son Jacob on the basis of his election to be the heir of promise. It must have had a very spiritual ring to it, but it was just as wrong as the partiality Isaac had for Esau. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was no basis for discrimination against Esau or for pampering Jacob.

If this assumption is true, then it has some far-reaching implications for us, my friends. If the prophecy concerning Jacob’s election did not justify favoritism to him at Esau’s expense, why is it that prophecy concerning Israel justifies partiality to the Jews at the expense of the Arabs? We have been so anxious to “bless” Abraham in order to be blessed (Genesis 12:3), that we have failed to condemn many of the actions of the Jews which have been unjust, immoral, and godless. Why are we so anxious to condemn an Arab attack as aggression and to defend an Israeli attack as defensive or retaliatory?

What I am suggesting is this: We dare not discriminate against any nation, Jewish or Gentile. We should bless the Jews and the nation Israel, but this does not necessitate our condoning that which is clearly sin. Let us remember that at this time in Israel’s history they are rejecting God and His Christ, Jesus the Messiah. While we may commend the bravery of the Jews and their intestinal fortitude, let us not in the process call evil good, and in the end inadvertently discriminate against the Arab peoples. Our eagerness to hastily and uncritically endorse every action of the nation of Israel must be questioned on both moral and biblical grounds.

Finally, it is noteworthy to observe that the biggest “crook” in our chapter is a believer. While Esau may have been crude, he was no crook. I think it is too often true today that Christian businessmen and Christian employees are crooked, just as Jacob was. We call ourselves shrewd, but that is only a euphemism for unethical practices. One reason why I think Christians can be as crooked as Jacob is that they are so convinced of the importance of the ends they seek that they feel that any means to achieve them are justified.

Jacob was one who, unlike Esau, valued the birthright. He valued it so highly that he was willing to stoop to the level he did to obtain it. Many of us convince ourselves that much of the money we make is going to missions, or the church, or the poor, and so we “launder” our money in Christian ministry. The goal is never more important than godliness, my friend. In fact, the Christian’s goal is godliness (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:15). Jacob was to learn that blessing resulted from prevailing with God, not prevailing over men. That is a lesson we too must learn.

208 “The Code of Hammurabi declares that children of slaves not legitimized, though not sharing in the estate, must be set free”. Law 171, as referred to by Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 185.

209 The Hebrew term for the struggle implies an intense activity in the womb which Rebekah understood to be far greater than normal, and thus of great significance.

210 We would like to have had more details here to satisfy our curiosity. How did Rebekah inquire of the Lord? Bush’s remarks seem closest to the mark:

“There are very different opinions as to the manner in which she made this inquiry. Some think it was simply by secret prayer; but the phrase to inquire of the Lord, in general usage signifies more than praying, and from its being said that she went to inquire, it is more probable that she resorted to some established piece, or some qualified person for the purpose of consultation. We are told, I Samuel 9:9, that ‘Beforetime in Israel when a man went to inquire of God, thus he spake, Come and let us go to the seer; for he that is now called a prophet, was beforetime called a seer.’ As Abraham was now living, and no doubt sustained the character of a prophet, Genesis 20:7, she may have gone to him, and inquired of the Lord through his means”. George Bush, Notes on Genesis (Minneapolis: James and Klock Publishing Co., Reprint, 1976), II, p. 62.

211 “Now the sale of the birthright--or, as it was here, its exchange--was an accepted custom in the patriarchal period. At a later time the supplanting of the firstborn was forbidden (Deut. 21:15-17), but it has been pointed out above that exchange or sale of the birthright was done in Nuzu, explaining patriarchal custom. At Nuzu it is recorded that one Gurpazah traded his inheritance for immediate possession of three sheep from his brother Tupkitilla.” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

212 Election here, as I understand it, does not refer to the selection of only Jacob to be saved (although his salvation was certainly due to election), but of Jacob to be the son through whom the blessings promised to Abraham would be passed on. Paul refers to this incident to illustrate the principle of election, and then applies it to that election which ordains individuals to salvation.

213 Some teach that God’s election is determined on the basis of His foreknowledge. In its simplest terms, God is said to choose those whom He knows in advance will choose Him. Our salvation is thus determined by our (first) choice, while God only seconds it. This makes man sovereign in salvation, not God. The problem with such a doctrine is that it denies the fact that God’s choice determines ours, and not the reverse: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; . . .” (John 15:16). “. . . and as Many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). “. . . and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14).

Furthermore, the word “to foreknow” sometimes means “to determine beforehand,” even as the word “know” sometimes means “to choose” (cf. Genesis 18:19; Jeremiah 1:5; Romans 8:29, 11:2, I Peter 1:20). Thus, to foreknow (or elect) refers to the selection of those to be saved, while predestination pertains to the destiny of these people. Foreknowledge selects the people; predestination the program.

214 B. B. Warfield, “Election,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, edited by John E. Meeter (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), Vol. 1, pp. 296-97).
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27. Isaac Walks in His Father’s Steps (Genesis 26:1-35)


There is a world of difference between a rerun and an instant replay. A rerun is simply seeing the same thing over again. An instant replay is seeing something over, but not all of it. It is looking at certain events again, usually much more carefully. The critics have tended to view Genesis 26 as a rerun, and not a very good one at that. They, of course, are right in recognizing the similarities between Isaac’s experiences in this chapter and those in the life of Abraham in the previous chapters. However, they misinterpret the similarities in such a way as to suggest that they do little, if anything, to benefit us.215 Indeed, they even question the historicity of these events in the life of Isaac.216

I would like us to focus our attention on chapter 26 as though it were an instant replay. This is the only chapter in the book of Genesis devoted exclusively to Isaac. While he is mentioned in other chapters, he is not the focus of attention. Here Isaac’s life is summed up in the events described, all of which have a striking parallel in the life of his father Abraham. These similarities are, I believe, the key to rightly understanding and applying this passage to our own lives.

A Reiteration of
the Abrahamic Covenant

Early in the life of Abraham a famine set in motion a sequence of events which greatly shaped the life of the patriarch. Likewise, a famine occurred early in the record of the life of Isaac:

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the previous famine that had occurred in the days of Abraham. So Isaac went to Gerar, to Abimelech king of the Philistines (Genesis 26:1).

This famine is specified to be a different one than that which happened during the life of Abraham. Taking this at face value, we cannot agree with the critics, who see only one famine variously reported. In an attempt to preserve his wealth in the form of many cattle, Isaac went to Gerar to avoid the famine. While in Gerar, or perhaps even before, Isaac decided to go down to Egypt just as his father had done (Genesis 12:10ff.). This was not according to the plan which God had for Isaac, and so He appeared to him with this word of instruction and promise:

Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land and I will be with you and bless you, for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath which I swore to your father Abraham. And I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My Laws (Genesis 26:2b-5).217

In verse 3 God commanded Isaac to remain in Gerar for a time. In verse 2 I understand God to have promised Isaac that He would guide him to the land where he should go in God’s good time. The remainder of God’s revelation is a reiteration of the Abrahamic covenant. To us these words are not only familiar but almost redundant. Again and again we have seen God confirm and clarify His covenant with Abraham (cf. Genesis 13:14-17; 15:1, 18-21; 17:1-7ff.; 21:12; 22:17-18), but let us not overlook the fact that, so far as we are told, this is the first time God has spoken thus to Isaac. For him this was no dull recital but a thrilling assurance that what God had promised Abraham, He now promised his son. This is a covenant with Isaac.

Verse 5 reminds us that the blessings of the covenant are, to some degree, a result of Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience to God. Surely, even more so, the fulfillment of the covenantal promises is based upon God’s faithfulness to Abraham. Of this Isaac was a witness (cf. chapter 22). Implied in verse 5 is the necessity for Isaac to believe God’s promise, accept it as a personal relationship, and to live obediently, even as his father had. The first step in this life of obedience was to remain in Gerar, which Isaac did (verse 6).

It is significant that Moses, who recorded in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Law) the giving of the Law, used the terms “charge, commandments, statutes and laws” with regard to Abraham’s relationship with God. I agree with Leupold, who remarks:

By the use of these terms Moses, who purposes to use them all very frequently in his later books, indicates that “laws, commandments, charges, and statutes” are nothing new but were involved already in patriarchal religion.218

A Repetition of Abraham’s Sin

What? Again? I’m afraid so. Strange as it may seem, the same old sin of deception raises its ugly head for the third time in chapter 26. If nothing else proves it, this does—Isaac is a son of his father. Frightened concerning his own safety, Isaac succumbs to the temptation to pass off his wife as his sister. In doing this he was willing to risk Rebekah’s purity as the price for his personal protection.

The similarities between this sin of Isaac and that of his father Abraham are numerous. Both sinned in the presence of Abimelech, and both were rebuked by the ruler of the Philistines. Both had a beautiful wife and feared for their own safety, thinking that they might be killed so that someone could marry their wife. Both lied by saying that their wife was their sister. It would also appear that neither Abraham nor Isaac recognized the gravity of their sin or fully repented of it.

The differences between the sin of Abraham and that of Isaac cannot be overlooked. These differences verify the fact that two different deceptions took place in the land of the Philistines: one by Abraham and the other by his son. There seems to be little doubt that there are two different “Abimelechs” in these chapters of Genesis. Many years had passed since Abraham stood without adequate excuse before Abimelech. We would be on safe ground to assume that the term “Abimelech” is a title of office, like “Pharaoh,” rather than a given name. The same could be said for the term “Phicol.” Another consideration is that sons were often named after their grandfathers.219 Either of these possibilities would readily explain the fact that the names “Abimelech” and “Phicol” (cf. verse 26) are found in chapter 26 as well as in chapter 20.

Abraham’s policy of deception was just that: a policy established before he entered into any danger (Genesis 12:11-13; 20:13). From the very outset Abraham introduced Sarah as his sister. Isaac, however, waited until he was approached concerning Rebekah. At this point his confidence left him, and he resorted to a lie:

When the men of the place asked about his wife, he said, “She is my sister,” for he was afraid to say, “My wife,” thinking “The men of the place might kill me on account of Rebekah, for she is beautiful” (Genesis 26:7).

We are not told what part Rebekah played in all of this. It is possible that she refused to actively cooperate, thus creating suspicions in the minds of the Philistines. Sarah was taken as a wife twice, but physical intimacy was divinely restrained. In the case of Rebekah, no one took her for a wife. God sharply warned Abimelech when he took Sarah, but here Abimelech learned of the deception by observing the conduct of Isaac with Rebekah. He did not treat her like a sister, but like a wife. There may well have been a hint of doubt already entertained by Abimelech and perhaps others of the Philistines, for when he saw Isaac caressing220 Rebekah he said, “… Behold, certainly she is your wife! …” (verse 9).221

Abimelech’s ethics appear to be based on a higher standard than Isaac’s. God had not spoken threateningly here to Abimelech as He had done when Sarah was taken into the Philistine ruler’s harem. Then Abimelech had been told that he was “as good as dead” (Genesis 20:3) if he so much as touched Sarah. There is no sword hanging proverbially over the head of Abimelech here. Nevertheless, he viewed the taking of a man’s wife as sin, and one of great consequence. Abimelech seemed to regard marital purity higher than Isaac did.

After discovering Isaac’s deception, Abimelech ordered that neither Isaac nor his wife was to be harmed (Genesis 26:11). Isaac was not instructed to leave, nor was he encouraged to stay. He was simply tolerated.

Return to the Place of Blessing

In verse 2 God had promised to guide Isaac to the place where he should dwell. Little did Isaac realize just how God was to lead him back to the place of His promise and presence. To a large degree it was by means of adversity and opposition.

On the surface, opposition seemed like the last thing which Isaac experienced. Staying on in Gerar after Abimelech had confronted him, Isaac harvested a bumper crop:

Now Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. And the LORD blessed him, and the man became rich, and continued to grow richer until he became very wealthy; for he had possessions of flocks and herds and a great household, so that the Philistines envied him (Genesis 26:12-14).

In spite of Isaac’s deception, God poured out His blessings upon him. For reasons we shall discuss later, Abimelech failed to recognize Isaac’s prosperity as the blessing of God. All he knew was that Isaac was a powerful figure—one whom he did not want to contend with. Abimelech knew also that the Philistines were growing uneasy about Isaac’s presence in the land.

Isaac was rather threatening personally not only because of his prosperity and power but also because of his father Abraham:

Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines stopped up by filling them with earth (Genesis 26:15).

Digging a well was considered tantamount to a claim of ownership of the land on which it was located.222 It enabled a man to dwell there and to sustain herds. Rather than recognize this claim, the Philistines sought to wipe it out by filling up the wells dug by Abraham. Their desire to overthrow all claim on their land was so intense that they would rather fill in a well, an asset of great value in such an arid land, than to allow this claim to remain unchallenged.

The sentiments of the Philistines were concisely expressed in Abimelech’s terse suggestion that Isaac depart from Gerar (verse 16). Rather than fight for possession of this property, Isaac retreated. The meek would inherit this land, but in God’s good time.

It would seem that Isaac had developed a strategy by which he determined where he was to sojourn. Essentially, Isaac refused to stay where there was conflict and hostility. Being a man with many animals to tend, he must be at a place where water was available in abundance. He not only re-opened the wells once dug by his father, but he dug other wells also. If a well was dug that produced water and use of this well was not disputed, Isaac was inclined to stay at that place.

While Isaac may not have realized it for some time, it was the disputes over the ownership of the wells he dug or reopened that served to guide him in the direction of the land of promise. To Isaac these wells were a necessity for survival, but to the Philistines these were a claim to the land. Opposition was thus humanly explainable, but it was a divinely ordained means of guidance as well.

In the valley of Gerar Isaac dug a well that produced “living water,” that is, water that originated from a spring—running water, not simply water that was contained. The Philistine herdsmen disputed with the herdsmen of Isaac over it, so Isaac moved on. Another well was dug, and there was yet another dispute (verse 21). Finally a well was dug that brought about no opposition. I would imagine that this was due somewhat to the distance Isaac had traveled from the Philistines. This well was named “Rehoboth,” signifying the hope Isaac had that this was the place God had designated for him to stay.

The parallel between Isaac’s life and that of his father is again evident in this account of the disputes over the wells and Isaac’s response. Due to their prosperity Abraham and Isaac needed much room for their flocks and a source of water. Prosperity brought contention between Lot’s herdsmen and those of Abraham (Genesis 13:5ff.) just as it did between Isaac’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Gerar. Isaac, like his father, chose to keep the peace by giving preference to the other party.

I have come to understand verses 23-25 as the key to the interpretation of chapter 26. Here a very strange thing happens. Up to this time Isaac’s decision as to where he should stay was based upon the finding of abundant water and the absence of hostilities. But now, having dug a well that was uncontested, we would have expected Isaac to dwell there. Instead we are told that he moved on to Beersheba, with no reason stated for this move: “Then he went up from there to Beersheba” (verse 23).

I believe that a significant change has occurred in Isaac’s thinking. Circumstances had previously shaped most of his decisions, but now something deeper and more noble seems to be giving direction in his life. Beersheba was the first place that Abraham had gone with Isaac after they came down from the “sacrifice” on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19). Isaac knew that God had promised to give him the land promised to his father Abraham (26:3-5). I believe he had finally come to see that through all the opposition over the wells he had dug, God had been guiding him back to the land of promise, back to those places where Abraham had walked in fellowship with God. Personally, I believe that Isaac went up to Beersheba because he sensed on a spiritual level that this was where God wanted him to be. If God had previously been “driving” Isaac through opposition, now Isaac was willing to be led.

The decision was shown to be the right one, for God immediately spoke words of reassurance:

And the LORD appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of your father Abraham; Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bless you, and multiply your descendants, For the sake of My servant Abraham” (Genesis 26:24).

Verse 25 is of particular interest. Notice especially the order in which Isaac set up residence in Beersheba:

So he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well (Genesis 26:25).

Previously the touchstone for knowing the will of God had been circumstances—in particular, Isaac stayed wherever he dug a well, found sufficient water, and was not opposed. Yet in this verse the sequence of events is reversed. First Isaac built an altar; then he worshipped, after which he pitched his tent. Finally, he dug a well.

There is a great lesson in faith and guidance here, I believe. The place for God’s people is the place of God’s presence. The place of intimacy, worship, and communion with God is the place to abide. There we should dwell, and there we may be assured of God’s provision for our needs. Material needs are thus considered last, while spiritual needs are primary. Is this not what our Lord referred to when He said:

But seek first His kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you (Matthew 6:33).

The Witness of Abimelech

From this point on everything seems to take on a different hue. Previously Isaac had been directed more providentially, but now that Isaac’s priorities have been rearranged, the blessings and guidance of God are far more evident in his life.

Abimelech, Ahuzzath, and Phicol all paid a state visit to Isaac. Isaac’s irritation as well as his curiosity can be seen in his interrogation: “… Why have you come to me, since you hate me, and have sent me away from you?” (Genesis 26:27)

Let’s face it, the situation was unusual. When he was in very close contact with Abimelech and the Philistines, the blessing of God on Isaac was present (cf. verse 12). The response of the people of the land was envy and animosity. They asked Isaac to leave their country. Now they were willing to come all this way simply to enter into a treaty with Isaac. What brought about this change of heart and mind?

Isaac’s conduct while with them was such that his testimony was far from sterling. He lied about his wife, passing her off as his sister. The Philistines could not imagine that his prosperity was the result of divine blessing, but rather they attributed it to just good luck. Now that Isaac’s priorities were changed and his life operating along spiritual guidelines, the blessing of God was evident. The covenant which God had made with Abraham was understood, at least in a practical way, to have passed on to his son. Abimelech realized that the hand of God was upon Isaac and that a favorable relationship with him was highly desirable:

And they said, “We see plainly that the LORD has been with you; so we said, ‘Let there now be an oath between us, even between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you, that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good, and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the LORD’” (Genesis 26:28-29; emphasis mine).

The prosperity of a godly man can easily be seen to be the blessing of God. Now as opposed to previous times this is seen to be true of Isaac.

The Witness of the Well

Surely the right place for Isaac to be was Beersheba. First, God had spoken in such a way as to confirm the decision of Isaac, a divine witness to the wisdom of this move. Then, Abimelech and two of his officials witnessed in a backhanded fashion to the blessing of God in Beersheba. Finally, there is the witness of the well. The place where God wants us to be is also the place of provision:

Now it came about on the same day, that Isaac’s servants came in and told him about the well which they had dug, and said to him, ‘”We have found water.” So he called it Shibah; therefore the name of the city is Beersheba to this day (Genesis 26:32-33).

What was once Isaac’s first concern was now his last, but water was still essential for his survival with such large herds. God would not let His servant do without that which he needed to prosper, and so the efforts expended in digging the well were blessed and water was struck. Mark it well: the place of God’s presence is also the place of God’s provision.

Regret Due to Esau’s Marriages

Serving God does not guarantee a trouble-free life and one of rose-strewn paths. There were still heartaches for Isaac and Rebekah; Esau was the source of much of their sorrow and grief:

And when Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite; and they made life miserable for Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35).

These verses help us to realize that even when we are rightly related to God, troubles will still be a part of our experience. These trials may be the result of our own sinfulness or that which is common to mankind. These verses provide the backdrop to the drama of chapter 27, which will be our next lesson.


This chapter underscores the two most common systems of guidance which are available to Christians of every age: living by principles or by providence. When we walk in accordance with the principles given in the Word of God, we walk closest to Him. When we walk by providence we shall still arrive where God wants us to be, but without the joy of being an active participant in the process. Instead, we are the passive object which God moves from point to point by circumstances. There is little joy or intimacy with God in this system.

Perhaps the most important lesson of this chapter is that which is taught by the most evident characteristic of the chapter. The one chapter which capsulizes the life of Isaac does so in a manner which shows that he walked in the footprints of his father Abraham. The liberal critics of the Bible note this similarity well, but they conclude from it that the chapter has little that is original or authentic, and so the chapter is largely passed by.

Hopefully this will not be the case for the serious Christian. I believe that God has much to teach us by observing that Isaac’s life was a replay of his father’s experiences with God. God made a covenant with Abraham; He confirmed it with Isaac. Abraham lied about his wife to Abimelech; Isaac repeated this sin before another Abimelech. Abimelech sought a treaty with Abraham, seeing that the hand of God’s blessing was upon him; so, years later, Abimelech did likewise with Isaac. The similarities seem to go on and on.

May I suggest to you that this should tell us something vital to our own Christian experience. There is a process, a long and extensive one, which God employs to bring a person first to Himself and then to maturity. It begins when that individual enters into a covenant relationship with God. For Abraham and Isaac the covenant was the Abrahamic covenant. For Christians today it is the new covenant instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ when He shed His blood on the cross of Calvary in order to provide for our forgiveness of sins and for our salvation:

And having taken some bread, when He had given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me,” And in the some way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

Everyone must begin his relationship at this very place, the place of personal relationship with God through acceptance of the covenant He has offered. And from this beginning we embark upon a spiritual voyage that is, in many ways, very similar to that of previous saints. When we are able to look back over our lives from the vantage point of eternity, I suspect that we will be amazed how similar the path has been for us compared to that of others before and after us. There are no shortcuts in the sanctification process.

As parents this is a very significant truth. Our children must walk in our footsteps if they are to be a part of the kingdom of God. Our children must begin at the point we did. They must come to a personal relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Then they must be allowed to make the same mistakes we did in order that they may come to a more mature faith and trust in the God who has called them.

If you are at all like me, you would prefer that your children not make the same mistakes you did, and I hope it is not necessary. I am simply pointing out the fact that Isaac did walk in a path nearly identical to that of his father. Let us be willing to allow our children to fail and to grow in the way God has purposed. Much as we would prefer it otherwise, our children cannot begin to relate to God on the level of our own walk. They must start at the beginning. That is the way it is.

Let me balance this somewhat by saying that the way we can best help our own children is by making certain that our footsteps are such that we would want our children to walk in them. If Isaac’s experience was, to some degree, a reflection of his father’s life, what a frightening thought that is. If our children’s lives are to mirror our own, what an awesome responsibility we have as parents to walk a path of obedience and submission to the will of God.

Finally, let me share with you a possible explanation for the way in which God dealt with the sins of Abraham and his son Isaac. I find myself disappointed and rather distraught by the thought that God did not come down on these men harder for their unchivalrous deception concerning their wives. I would have expected God to confront them sharply for their sin. If I had been an elder in their church, I would have strongly urged disciplinary action. Why, then, did God not respond more forcefully?

I think I am slowly beginning to understand the reason. Deception is sin, and God hates the lying tongue (cf. Proverbs 6:17). But lying here was a symptomatic sin and not the root sin. God did not smash the red warning light (deception) because He was concerned about getting to the root of the problem. The root sin, as I perceive it, was unbelief or lack of faith. In each case of deception, Abraham and Isaac lied out of fear (cf. 12:11-13; 20:11; 26:7). This fear was the product of an inadequate concept of God. They did not grasp the sovereignty or the omnipotence of God in such a way as to believe that God could protect them under any and every circumstance. Having solved the problem of too little faith, the sin of deception will not be an issue any longer.

It is my personal opinion that we sometimes become preoccupied with “symptom sins,” rushing about trying, as someone in our church said, to stomp them like roaches. While sin should always be taken seriously, many of our sins will be dealt with by an adequate conception of who God really is. The fundamental sin is that of unbelief, not only for those who are unsaved but also for those who are truly saved.

215 “This chapter finds little elucidation in various expositions. It is not touched upon in Understanding Genesis nor in Expositor’s Bible. By others it is rather a casual intrusion that does little to further the story or make any contribution to the development of thought after chapter 25.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), D. 211.

216 “It is sometimes wondered how it was that Isaac did exactly what his father before him had done, and the similarity of the circumstances has led some to think that this is only a variant of the former story. Would it not be truer to say that this episode is entirely consonant with what we know of human nature and its tendencies? What would be more natural than that Isaac should attempt to do what his father had done before him? Surely a little knowledge of human nature as distinct from abstract theory is sufficient to warrant a belief in the historical character of this narrative. Besides, assuming that it is a variant of the other story, we naturally ask which of them is the true version; they cannot both be true, for as they now are they do not refer to the same event. The names and circumstances are different in spite of similarities.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 239.

217 Kidner says further, “The heaped-up terms (cf., e.g., Dt. 11:1) suggest the complete servant, responsible and biddable. They also dispel any idea that law and promise are in necessary conflict (cf. Jas. 2:22; Gal. 3:21)”. Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 153.

218 H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 720.

219 “Naming sons after grandfathers (‘papponymy’) was customary at various times. In a nearly contemporary example from Egypt the royal house and a provincial governing family retained this pattern side by side for four generations, so that Ammenemes I appointed Khnumhotep I, and his grandson Ammenemes II appointed Khnumhotep II. Alternating with them, Sesostris I and II appointed Nakht I and II, and certain negotiations were repeated as well.” Kidner, Genesis, p. 154, fn. 1.

220 The word used here, which is rendered “caressing” by the NASV, is interesting because its root is the same word from which the name Isaac is derived. Isaac (to laugh) was caressing (“sporting,” KJV) Rebekah. In Genesis 39:17 and Exodus 32:6 this word is employed by Moses to refer to “play,” which has rather obvious sexual overtones.

221 “The king’s mode of stating the case implies suspicions that he has held right along: ‘Look (here), she certainly is thy wife,’ a shade of thought caught by Meek when he renders: ‘So she really is your wife.’” Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 722.

222 “The digging of wells was a virtual claim to the possession of the land, and it was this in particular that the Philistines resented.” Griffith Thomas, Genesis, p. 240.
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28. Working Like the Devil, Serving the Lord (Genesis 27:1-46)


C. S. Lewis once wrote, “A little lie is like a little pregnancy.” How aptly that statement summarizes the events of Genesis 27. Isaac, with the cooperation of Esau, conspires to thwart the purpose of God to fulfill His covenant with Abraham through Jacob. Rebekah, aided by her son Jacob, seeks to outwit and outmaneuver Isaac and Esau to maintain for Jacob the right of the firstborn, which he purchased from Esau.

The secular songwriter has caught the spirit of some Christian service and surely the heartbeat of this chapter in the song entitled, “Working Like the Devil, Serving the Lord.” It is difficult to discern who surpasses the rest in this web of scheming and deceit: Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, or Esau.223 The family unit has been split into two factions, each headed by a parent who wants to live out his own expectations through his son, at the expense of the others. It is indeed a tragic story and yet one that rings true to life and reveals much of what we are like today.

The Conspiracy of Isaac and Esau

There are several overriding themes which are interwoven in these four verses. These themes characterize the attempt of Isaac and Esau to regain the blessings of God as promised to Abraham, spoken to Isaac, and unscrupulously secured by Jacob. Recognition of these themes will enable us to grasp the significance of this turning point in the lives of these four members of the patriarchal family.

The first theme is that of urgency. There is obvious haste in what takes place. Our impression is that Isaac stands with one proverbial foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. He is old, perhaps dying, and the blessing must quickly be pronounced upon Esau before it is too late.

On the surface this urgency seems to be well founded. Isaac is old, perhaps 137 years old if our calculations are accurate.224 It comes as no surprise that Isaac suffers from some of the infirmities of old age, such as poor eyesight (verse 1). Isaac was far from death’s door, however, for we learn from Genesis 35:28 that it was more than forty years later before he died at the ripe old age of 180! We should point out that his half brother Ishmael did die at age 137 (Genesis 25:17). Perhaps Isaac was not wrong to consider that his days were numbered, but in his desire to see his favorite son receive the Abrahamic blessings he stooped to unspiritual actions.

The second impression I have of verses 1-4 is that of secrecy. Normally the blessing would have been given before the entire family because it was, in reality, an oral will which legally determined the disposition of all that the father possessed.225 Distribution of family wealth and headship would best be carried out in the presence of all who were concerned. Thus we later find Jacob giving his blessing in the presence of all his sons (Genesis 49).

No such atmosphere is to be sensed in the conversation between Isaac and Esau. Neither Jacob nor Rebekah were present, and this was hardly an oversight. Had it not been for the attentive ear of Rebekah, the entire matter would seemingly have been completed with only two parties involved.

The third impression which can hardly be missed is that of conspiracy. This follows closely on the heels of the secrecy already described. Conspiracy and secrecy go hand in hand. There can be little doubt that Isaac intended at this clandestine feast to convey his blessings upon Esau to the exclusion of Jacob altogether. (This is why Isaac had no blessing left to convey upon Esau, cf. verses 37-38.)

Here was a premeditated plot to thwart the plan and purpose of God for Jacob. It is inconceivable that Isaac was ignorant of the revelation of God to Rebekah:

And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

If for no other reason, Rebekah’s fallen nature (a malady common to all) would have dictated the disclosure of this divine revelation. Can you really imagine in this on-going contest between Rebekah and Isaac that she would not appeal to this revelation from God as the biblical basis for the favoritism shown toward “her” son Jacob? To me it is inconceivable.

Then again, can you imagine that Isaac was ignorant of the sale of Esau’s birthright to his brother? Isaac was not being informed for the first time of this when Esau cried out in despair,

Is he not rightly named Jacob, for he has supplanted me these two times? He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing. (Genesis 27:36).

The final and compelling evidence of Esau’s disqualification for spiritual headship is his marriage to two Canaanite wives:

And when Esau was forty years old he married Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Basemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite (Genesis 26:34).

Totally disdaining spiritual purity, Esau did not hesitate to intermarry with the Canaanites. God’s purposes for His people could never be achieved through such a person.

In spite of all these elements, Isaac sought to overrule the verdict of God that the elder serve the younger. He anticipated doing so by a magical misuse of the pronouncement of the blessing before his death. Normally the birthright belonged to the eldest son. This entitled him to a double share of the property in addition to the privilege of assuming the father’s position of headship in the family. For the descendants of Abraham it determined the one through whom the covenant blessings would be given.226

Under certain circumstances the possessor of this birthright could be dispossessed. Such a change would normally be formalized at the giving of the oral blessing at the time of approaching death. Thus Jacob gave Ephraim precedence over Manasseh (Genesis 48:8ff.), and he gave Reuben’s rights of the firstborn to Judah because of his misuse of his position (Genesis 49:3ff.). And so it would appear that Isaac intended to manipulate God by reversing the decree of God and the rightful ownership of the rights of the first-born as purchased (although unethically) by Jacob. This he purposed to do by giving his oral blessing to Esau:

May peoples serve you, And nations bow down to you; Be master of your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be those who curse you, And blessed be those who bless you (Genesis 27:29, cf. Genesis 12:3).

Either by a genuine or a contrived sense of urgency Isaac sought to secretly overturn God’s revealed will and Jacob’s rightful possession by a clandestine conveyance of an oral blessing. By his willful participation Esau disregarded the legal agreement he had made with his brother. In both instances a dinner provided the occasion for such deception. To sit at the table of Abraham (and even Lot) was to be afforded hospitality and protection, but to sit at the table with Isaac and his sons was to face the dangers of deception and false dealing.227

The Counter-Conspiracy of Rebekah and Jacob

Our Lord once said to His disciples, “… all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). There is perhaps no clearer illustration of this principle than what can be seen in Genesis 27:5-17. Isaac sought to further his own interests by means of cunning and deceit. God’s method of dealing with this was to give Isaac a wife who was far more skillful at manipulation than he. What a master of deceit this woman was.

Rebekah could easily have met the job requirements for a position with the CIA. She served as a counter-spy in the service of her son. She posed as the faithful, loving wife, but under all of this she sought to further Jacob’s interests, even at the expense of her husband Isaac. Rebekah, not Jacob, was the mastermind behind the “mission impossible” of outwitting Isaac and obtaining his blessing for Jacob.

Rebekah did not just happen to overhear the whisperings of Isaac and Esau as they plotted the diversion of divine promises to the elder son. The text tells us that she “was listening.” The Hebrew form that is used in the original text suggests that this was a habit, a pattern of behavior, not a happenstance.228 Esau had hardly gotten outside the house before Rebekah had the wheels in motion to overthrow this conspiracy with a bigger one of her own.

When you stop to think about it, the plan was an incredible one. Only a sense of desperation or a very devious mind (or both!) could hope such a plot would succeed. How could a son with a totally different disposition and physical appearance possibly manage to convince his father that he was his older brother?

In my estimation such a plan could hardly have been something conceived on the spur of the moment. I tend to think that Rebekah had been thinking about this possibility for some time and that many of the props were already in place for this theatrical production. How could she possibly have considered minute details such as the goatskin gloves and neck coverings in so short a time? And how, in a few moments time, could they have been fashioned so expertly so as to have fooled Isaac? Did she just happen to have Esau’s garments at hand even though he was married and perhaps not living at home? Rebekah was too shrewd to leave these matters to chance or to last minute accomplishment. I think this production had been staged far in advance of its performance.

I find the protests of Jacob to be of particular interest. What constitutes the basis for his objections? Moses has recorded them for us:

And Jacob answered his mother Rebekah, “Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy men and I am a smooth man. Perhaps my father will feel me, then I shall be as a deceiver in his sight; and I shall bring upon myself a curse and not a blessing” (Genesis 27:11-12).

I am taken aback by the utter absence of any moral considerations here. Jacob does not rebuke his mother for the evil which she has proposed. One simple statement would have summed up the matter concisely: “It is not right.” But no moral verdict is pronounced, and worse yet, it is not even considered. Situational ethics always seem to boil down to the premise that emergencies overrule ethics. How desperately wicked such thinking is.

Jacob’s objections are based upon two considerations, both of which deal with pragmatics rather than principle. The first is simply that such a scheme is too incredible to possibly work. Jacob’s best reason for avoiding Rebekah’s scheme was that it was likely to fail, but Rebekah was too shrewd to propose a scheme that she had not worked out to the minutest detail. The second objection was based upon a consideration of what would happen if the plot did fail. In other words, Jacob was concerned about the consequences of failure. Godly men make decisions based first and foremost upon principle, while the ungodly act only on the basis of practicality. We say that crime doesn’t pay, but the criminal knows full well that it does, and so the crime rate continues to spiral upward. The law and the government which enforces it serve as the only deterrent to evil, for penalty counts far more than principle to those who are evil (cf. Romans 13:2-4; I Timothy 1:9).

Rebekah had a ready answer for this objection. She promised to assume the negative consequences personally if anything were to go wrong. And let me add that she did suffer greatly for the part she played in this scheme. What neither Rebekah nor her son considered, however, were the consequences for their sin even if they did succeed, which they did. Their plan went off without a hitch, but the results were the opposite of what they had hoped for.

One question remains: “What should Rebekah have done in these circumstances?” Isaac was wrong in what he conspired to do. Jacob was the son whom God chose to be the “heir of promise.” Nevertheless, evil must not be resisted with evil; it must be overcome by good (Romans 12:21).

The first thing Rebekah should have done was to speak honestly and forthrightly to her husband about his contemplated sin. Submission to authority never includes silence toward evil. We are to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), even to those in authority over us (cf. Acts 16:35-40).

Having fulfilled her responsibility to warn her husband of the consequences of the evil he had planned, Rebekah should have been content to leave the disposition of the matter to God, Who is all-powerful and all-wise. Her actions betrayed her lack of faith in the sovereignty of God. She should have acted as Gideon’s father did when the people purposed to put his son to death for tearing down the altar of Baal:

…Will you contend for Baal, or will you deliver him? … If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has torn down his altar (Judges 6:31).

If God is God, then let Him act on His own behalf, particularly in those times when we are unable to act in a way that is consistent with His Word.

Jacob Believes the Big Lie

Adolph Hitler believed in using the “big lie.” Little misrepresentations and lies might arouse suspicion, but the “big lie” would be so incredible that people would assume it must be true. It was Mark Twain, I believe, who said that fiction was believable and that non-fiction was beyond belief. When Jacob posed as his elder brother it was nothing less than an ancient application of the principle of the “big lie.”

Perhaps Jacob never intended this lie to become as big as it did, but nevertheless, it grew bigger and bigger with every statement he made. It began with the words “I am Esau your first-born” (verse 19). From this, lie began to be piled upon lie: “I have done as you told me” (verse 19); “eat of my game” (verse 19). In response to Isaac’s penetrating question, “Are you really my son Esau?,” Jacob replied, “I am” (verse 24). However, the lie that virtually sends chills up my spine as I read it is found in verse 20:

And Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have it so quickly, my son?” And he said, “Because the LORD your God caused it to happen to me.”

Don’t you expect a bolt of lightning to come from on high and with one “zot” remove this deceiver once for all time? Well, before you come down too quickly on Jacob, think of how Christians today do precisely the same thing. Jacob excused his sin by claiming that God was his partner in its performance. We frequently say, “The Lord led me to …” when often it is something we have always wanted to do and we have finally worked up the courage (or the folly) to go ahead with it. “The Lord told me to …” “The Lord has blessed us by …” Be careful with such statements. They may be evidence of the same kind of thinking that caused Jacob to tell his father God had prospered him by giving him a goat rather than wild game. With what pious words we seek to conceal our sin!

There is something strangely pathetic about Isaac in this chapter. He seems destined to fail, as would any man attempting to overrule God. His vulnerability is the result of several forces. First of all, Isaac is the victim of old age. His eyes are dim (verse 1) so that he cannot distinguish between what is genuine and what is artificial. His senses are somewhat dulled by age as well, or so it would seem. He did not perceive the difference between goat and game. He could not differentiate between goat skin and that of his son Esau.

Then, too, Isaac’s judgment seems to have been impaired by his haste. It was obvious that Isaac wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. He wanted the blessing to go to Esau so that it would be done—finished. Had there not been this sense of haste, Isaac might have insisted that his “other son” be present for the blessing too. Good judgment now, as then, is suspended in the name of urgency.

The fact cannot be overlooked that the decision Isaac reached was one based upon all five of his senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. The garments which Rebekah had on hand were those of Esau, and they smelled like him, too. Some have politely suggested that the smell was more like cologne, but frankly, I doubt it. Like Dr. J. Vernon McGee, I think it was another kind of smell.229 It was not the smell of Esau’s deodorant but the smell resulting from the lack of it that gave him away. Even the dulled senses of Isaac could not miss the smell of his son. Imagine it—Isaac, in the final analysis, was led by his nose.

I find Isaac’s error informative in the light of our scientific age that insists upon making decisions solely on the basis of empirical evidence. If we cannot see it, hear it, feel it, or smell it, it does not exist. Let me say that the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3) has constituted all men sinners. Every aspect of our being has been tainted by sin: intellect, emotions, and will. A man whose heart is at enmity with God can look at empirical facts and come up with a conclusion that is totally false. The problem is not with the facts; the problem is with man, whose head and heart lead him astray. Such was the case with Isaac; so it is today.

Isaac Learns and Esau Burns

The Bible is a wonderful book in that what is true can also be beautiful. While the Scriptures are given to edify and to exhort us, this is done by literature which is skillfully written. There is a distinct sense of drama in this narrative. It is so familiar to most of us that we fail to sense it, but it is there none the less. We are kept in suspense till the very last moment to see if Jacob can survive the interrogation and inspection of his father. The blessing is not pronounced until the last, causing us to fear that at any moment Esau will barge into the room, expose the fraud of his brother, and bring a curse upon him, while he receives the blessing for himself. Moses tells us that Jacob had just left when his brother came to his father with his meal (verse 30).

While Isaac loved the taste of Jacob’s “game,” Jacob savored the taste of his victory over Esau. He left triumphant and with a sigh of relief. Esau must have arrived at his father’s bedside with an expectant look, sensing that the blessing was almost in his grasp. What a smug sense of satisfaction and revenge Esau must have been flirting with. And Isaac? At long last he had outwitted his wife and had blessed Esau, or so he thought.

All of this was shattered when Esau approached his father with the words: “Let my father rise, and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me” (verse 31).

How puzzled Esau must have been at the terrified look in his father’s eyes and at the way he trembled violently upon his bed. What could possibly have gone wrong? A sense of dread must have slowly fallen over Esau as it became more and more clear that his brother had once again gotten the best of him. The irony of it all was that since Isaac had tried to give everything to Esau, there was nothing left that could be considered a blessing to his favorite son, for all had been given to Jacob.

The consequences for Rebekah and Jacob are recorded in verses 41-45, but the tragic results of the conspiracy of Isaac and Esau are seen sooner. Isaac had sought to give all to his favorite son Esau at Jacob’s expense. Instead, he gave all to Jacob at Esau’s expense. Isaac set his heart on that which was contrary to the revealed will of God, and because of this his world came crashing down upon him when God’s purposes prevailed. Esau despised spiritual things and thus sold his destiny for a dinner. Then he attempted to get it back by renouncing his solemn oath and conspiring with his father to dishonestly regain what he had lost through his own profanity. Esau learned that there comes a point of no return in every man’s life when regret cannot bring a reversal of past decisions. As I understand the Bible, all who have rejected Christ as Savior will live in eternal regret and remorse, but this will not overturn the consequences of living with their decision to live in independence from God (cf. Luke 16:19-31; Philippians 2:9-11; II Thessalonians 1:6-10; Revelation 20:11-15).

Rebekah and Jacob Have a Price to Pay

For Rebekah and her son Jacob the price tag for their success was as costly as that of Isaac and Esau for their defeat. I have never seen anyone come away from the end results of sin with a smile on their face. Sin does not pay. Jacob and Rebekah can tearfully testify to this fact.

Rebekah loved Jacob more than life itself and, seemingly, more than Isaac. She sought his success (which happened to correspond with the revealed will of God) at any price, even deception and deceit. The price she paid was separation from her son, which appears to have lasted for the rest of her life.230 So far as we can detect, once Jacob left for Haran he never saw his mother again. Rebekah underestimated the consequences of this sin, for she thought that Jacob would only need to be gone for a short time—until the death of Isaac (27:44). But Isaac lived for a good forty years until he died at age 180 (35:28).

Jacob faced the inevitable results of sin also. He must have felt an alienation from his father, whom he had not only deceived but also mocked (cf. 27:12, marginal note in the NASV). He now had a brother who despised him and who looked for the day when he could put him to death (verse 41). And worst of all, he had to leave the mother he loved. In addition to this, all that he had gained in a material way he was unable to enjoy because he had to leave it behind to flee for his life. Sin does not pay!


Several doctrines which are illustrated by this chapter should be highlighted. First, we learn more about the sovereignty of God. Consistent with other passages of Scripture, we see that God is in complete control of His universe, even when men attempt to overrule His decrees:

The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps (Proverbs 16:9).

Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the LORD, it will stand (Proverbs 19:21).

For the wrath of man shall praise Thee; … (Psalm 76:10).

From this passage in Genesis a principle can be formulated concerning the sovereignty of God: Man’s sin can never frustrate the will of God, but it can fulfill it.

The purpose of God as expressed to Rebekah in Genesis 25:23 was perfectly accomplished without one alteration. The sins of Isaac and Esau and Rebekah and Jacob did not in any way thwart God’s will from being done. In fact, their sins were employed by God in such a way as to achieve the will of God. God’s sovereignty is never thwarted by man’s sin. To the contrary, God is able to achieve His purposes by employing man’s sinful acts to further His plans.

This is not to say that God makes man sin in order to achieve His purposes. Nor is it even to imply that God regards disobedience any less sinful because He turns evil into good. The sins of each party in this chapter are not glossed over or excused. No one has passed the responsibility for their actions on to God. No one can place the burden of guilt on God because of His decree. Sin is due to man’s depravity.

Had all acted in obedience, God would have employed some other means to bring about the blessing of Jacob instead of Esau. God did not create a situation in which men had to sin in order for His will to be done. Neither will He ever do so. We never have to sin as Christians (I Corinthians 10:13; cf. James 1:13). While God “causes all things to work together for good” (Romans 8:28), He does not create evil in order to bring resulting good. We are responsible for our sin, not God. He allows it; He uses it; but He does not necessitate it.

How, then, might God have achieved the blessing of Jacob apart from the sins of this patriarchal family? Let me say very frankly that I do not know, nor do I need to know. But this I am fully assured of: Isaac could no more have pronounced a blessing upon Esau contrary to the will of God than Balaam could have cursed Israel (cf. Numbers 22-24). God will not allow men to frustrate His purposes.

Second, we learn about the doctrine of sin. Sin always produces separation. It separates men from men, and men from God (cf. John 15:18ff; II Thessalonians 1:5-10).

Third, we learn more on the doctrine of the depravity of man. Man’s sinfulness is manifested in the distortion that it brings into every area of his life: his intellect, his emotions, and his will. The empirical method is a good one, but our depravity has touched our intellect in such a way as to twist our thinking so that we can take the right facts and turn them to wrong conclusions. The empirical method, when employed by sinful men, will often lead them astray.

Only when our true motive is to learn the will of God and to do it and when our minds are transformed (Romans 12:2) by the Spirit of God through the Word of God can we expect to rightly interpret the facts before us.

From Genesis 27 I have become convinced of a truth I have never realized: It is Possible to Practice Faith in a Way that is Inconsistent with it.

Generally we would all suppose that actions based upon faith are righteous, while those things which are done apart from faith are evil. There is certainly an element of truth here, but I could hardly believe what I read in the book of Hebrews concerning the blessing of Jacob and Esau by Isaac: “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau, even regarding things to come” (Hebrews 11:20).

Would it ever have occurred to you that Isaac’s blessing of Jacob and Esau was an act of faith? In what sense can this be true? Surely the deception and disobedience of Isaac is not being called “righteous” by the writer to the Hebrews. How can these events in Genesis 27 be, in any sense, acts of faith on the part of Isaac?

I think that I am beginning to understand the answer to this question. Look for a moment at what is found just a few verses later in Hebrews 11:

By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace (Hebrews 11:31).

Rahab, as we know, lied about the two spies (Joshua 2:3-7). She did this believing that God was with them and with the nation Israel. She knew that God would prosper His people and destroy those who were their enemies. In this sense, she had faith in the God of Israel and was saved from destruction. Her act of lying was not commended by God, nor should it be seen as anything less than sin.231 And yet it stemmed from her faith. Her faith in God was manifested to some degree in her deception.

The same can be said for Isaac. Isaac believed in God. He believed in the covenant promises of God. He believed that the one upon whom the blessing was pronounced would be blessed indeed. He believed this so confidently that he was willing to deceive and even to disobey to have those benefits fall upon his favorite son Esau.

In this sense, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in faith. He pronounced the blessing in the faith that God would honor it and that its recipient would be blessed. Isaac’s actions stemmed from faith; but, at the same time, they were not appropriate to that faith.

I believe that the same thing is possible (and probably all too common) for Christians today. Our faith in God may lead us to witness, but we may use methods which are inconsistent with the gospel we proclaim. Our faith may cause us to share the way of salvation, but we may corrupt that gospel in order to cause no offense to the last. We suppose that we are furthering the cause of Christ, but we are corrupting the gospel, which is “the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16). Our goal may be biblical (e.g., the salvation of others), and so may our motivation (faith), but our means may be totally wrong. That should be food for considerable thought.

One final word must be said about the matter of Christian ethics. Jacob was guilty of practicing situational ethics. He considered the plan of his mother from the vantage point of practicality but not from the biblical perspective of principle. He worried about whether the plan would work but not if it was right. He agonized over the consequences of the plan if it failed but not the morality of such a plan in the first place.

I think we find a parallel in our own times in the matter of sexual conduct and morality. Sexual conduct seems often to be considered only in the light of availability and opportunity, not in the light of biblical morality. Sexual immorality has often been discouraged because of the consequences of disease and the shame and inconvenience of an unwanted pregnancy Now, however, society has come up with penicillin and the pill and, if all else fails, the abortion clinic. The younger generation feels little sense of reluctance to engage in immorality because they are assured, like Jacob was, that there will be no negative consequences. Let us teach our children what is right, and let us help our children to see that sin always has a price tag that is far too great to seriously consider disobedience to God.

223 “This makes all four participants in the present scene almost equally at fault. Isaac, whether he knew of the sale or not, knew God’s birth-oracle of 25:23, yet set himself to use God’s power to thwart it (see verse 29). This is the outlook of magic, not religion. Esau, in agreeing to the plan, broke his own oath of 25:33. Rebekah and Jacob, with a just cause, made no approach to God or man, no gesture of faith or love, and reaped the appropriate fruit of hatred.” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1967), p. 155.

224 Stigers, after a consideration of Genesis 47:9; 45:11; 41:26-27; 41:46; 30:22ff.; and 29:18,27 calculates that Jacob would have been 77 years old when he left for Padan-Aram. If this is correct, Isaac would be 137 years old here, since we know he was 60 years old when the twins were born (25:26). Cf. Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

225 “From excavations at Nuzu in central Mesopotamia we learn that the oral blessing or will had legal validity and would stand up even in the courts. Nuzu tablet P56 mentions a lawsuit between three brothers in which two of them contested the right of a third to marry a certain Zululishtar. The young man won his case by arguing that this marriage was provided for in his father’s deathbed blessing.” Howard Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 96. The information cited by Vos comes from Cyrus Gordon, “Biblical Customs and the Nuzu Tablets,” The Biblical Archaeologist, February, 1940, p. 8.

226 “The birthright was more than a title to the family inheritance; it involved a spiritual position. The place of the individual in the covenant status of Israel was part of the birthright and it was this aspect which made the foolishness of Esau so profound.” W. White, Jr. “Birthright,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975-1976), I, p. 617.

227 Leupold rightly comments, “He that knows the duplicity and treachery of the human heart will not find it difficult to understand how a man will circumvent a word of God, no matter how clear it be, if his heart is really set on what is at variance with that word.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II., p. 737.

228 “The participle shoma’ath . . . indicates a continuing watchfulness on her part to protect Jacob’s interests.” Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, p. 217.

229 Cf. J. Vernon McGee, Genesis (Pasadena: Through the Bible Books, 1975), II, p. 302.

230 Rebekah paved the way for Jacob’s exodus in verse 46, but we shall delay a more detailed comment on this verse until the message on chapter 28. Suffice it to say that she still persisted at the manipulation of her husband, which she does with great skill.

231 Some would differ here. There are those who would say that during war deception (lying) is not sin--and this was a time of war. Thus, Rahab was not guilty of sin in this instance. I happen to disagree with that conclusion, although I do believe that deception in a time of war is not considered sin. We must realize that the writer to the Hebrews spoke only of Rahab’s reception of the spies, not of her deception, when he wrote of her faith.
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29. The Seeker Is Sought (Genesis 28:1-22)


God has a way of shaping the lives of His children even before they have entered into a relationship with him. One of my seminary professors, whom I greatly admire, serves to illustrate this dramatically. While an unbeliever, he attended college and was faced with a decision as to his major. He was (and is) an exceptional golfer and decided to major in whatever subject was available which would leave his afternoons free to play golf. That subject happened to be Greek. After his conversion he went on to theological seminary and eventually became the head of the Greek department there for many years.

I am inclined to look at the life of Jacob in a similar way. I do not see any evidence of his conversion before Genesis 28. In Genesis 27:20 Jacob referred to the God of Abraham and of Isaac as “your God.” It is here in chapter 28 that Jacob affirmed, “The LORD will be my God” (Genesis 28:21). Jacob appears to be on the road to Haran much as Saul made his way to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1ff.), religious but not related to God by a personal faith and commitment. Both Saul and Jacob were stopped short by a vision which was to change the course of their lives.

Jacob’s Farewell
and Esau’s Frustration

While the consequences for failure to pull off the deception of Isaac had been carefully considered, neither Rebekah nor Jacob had weighed the cost of success. Isaac had been deceived and mocked (cf. 27:12, marginal note in NASV) due to the frailties of his age. Esau was deeply resentful, looking forward to the time when he could kill his brother (27:41). Rebekah must have found the gap between herself and her husband (not to mention Esau) widened by her deception of her mate. More than this, Rebekah now perceived that Jacob would have to leave until emotions cooled, although she had no conception of how long this separation must last.

In Genesis 27:42-45 Rebekah began to expedite the plan which she had already formulated in her mind. She must see to it that Jacob escaped the passions of Esau. She would arrange for him to spend time with her brother Laban, far from Esau, and so she began to pave the way for Jacob’s escape. First, she prepared Jacob for his departure by explaining the need for it (verses 42-45). Just a few days, she reasoned,232 would be needed for things to settle down (verse 44). Instead it was twenty years before Jacob would return (cf. 31:38), and that, it appears, was after she died.

The final verse of chapter 27 describes the skillful manipulation of Isaac by Rebekah, leading him to the inevitable conclusion that Jacob should be sent away to Haran, the city of her brother Laban:

And Rebekah said to Isaac, “I am tired of living because of the daughters of Heth; if Jacob takes a wife from the daughters of Heth, like these, from the daughters of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Genesis 27:46)

How different was Rebekah’s approach from what Sarah could have been predicted to do. I think Sarah would have given Abraham an ultimatum: “Send my son to my brother Laban in Haran or else!” This she would have demanded, poking her bony finger in the face of Abraham all the while (cf. 16:5; 21:10). Rebekah believed in the subtle but sure approach. She never told Isaac what to do; she just spelled things out in such a way that Isaac could reasonably do nothing else. She let it be known how distressed she was over the Canaanite women whom Esau had taken as wives (cf. 26:34-35). Then she insinuated that if Jacob did the same she would not be fit to live with. Little wonder then that Isaac did what is recorded in the first two verses of chapter 28:

So Isaac called Jacob and blessed him and charged him, and said to him, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan. Arise, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father; and from there take to yourself a wife from the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1-2).

Two things are striking about this word of instruction from the lips of Isaac. First, it is unprecedented. Nowhere previously has this instruction been given. We see this from Esau’s response to the events of the early verses of chapter 28:

Now Esau saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him away to Paddan-aram, to take to himself a wife from there, and that when he blessed him he charged him, saying, “You shall not take a wife from the daughters of Canaan,” and that Jacob had obeyed his father and his mother and had gone to Paddan-aram. So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased his father Isaac; and Esau went to Ishmael, and married, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth (Genesis 28:6-9).

We must therefore conclude that neither Jacob nor Esau had ever previously been taught that marriage to a Canaanite woman would be inconsistent with the will of God and unsatisfactory to their parents.

Second, this charge to Jacob was untimely. We must admit that the occasion of Jacob going to Paddan-aram to seek a wife is a good one for this instruction, but we must not overlook how late in the life of these two sons this is. We have previously stated that Jacob was 77 years old when he went down to Haran.233 This would mean that Jacob did not marry until he was 84, since he had to work seven years for his wife (29:18,20).

We must remember that Isaac was 40 when he married Rebekah (25:20), as was Esau when he took his two Hittite wives (26:34). For Esau this instruction came 37 years late. Imagine his frustration at finally learning the reason for his parents’ grief about his marriage. Surely Isaac’s words in verses 1 and 2 are too little and too late for Esau, and none too soon for Jacob.

Coupled with the fact that marriage was a secondary reason for Jacob’s departure to Haran, while survival was primary, we begin to grasp the casual attitude of Isaac toward the spiritual training of his sons. To him these matters must have been of minimal import to come as little and as late as they did.

The blessing of Jacob is somewhat more positive. While Isaac had blessed Jacob in the previous chapter, he had done so as though it were Esau. That blessing does not reach the clarity and the particularity of verses 3 and 4:

And may God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may become a company of peoples. May He also give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your descendants with you; that you may possess the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham.

Only by allusion did Isaac convey the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob in chapter 27. Here it is stated in very specific terms. Isaac has finally resigned himself to the fact that God is going to bless Jacob and not Esau. His words reflect this acceptance of things as they must be and as God said they would be.

Television and the movies have conditioned us to delight in the destruction of the villain. He gets his just desserts, and usually in a way that befits his dastardly deeds. We all know that the good guy will win (or at least this used to be true), but we must watch until we have had the pleasure of seeing the bad guy get what is coming to him. Likewise, when we come to these verses concerning the response of Esau to what has happened between Isaac and Jacob, we tend to think of Esau as the villain. We expect to see his downfall, and we plan to savor it when it comes.

Because of this, we must be reminded that Jacob was not chosen because he was the hero, nor was Esau rejected because he was the villain. Genesis 25, especially in the light of Paul’s explanation in Romans 9, forces us to conclude that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau without regard to the deeds of either (Romans 9:11-12). Esau is not a man who, because of his actions described here and elsewhere, was rejected by God. Esau is not any different from any unbeliever whose heart has not been enlivened and whose mind has not been enlightened to respond to divine realities. Esau in his unbelief is no more depraved nor any less sensitive to spiritual things than any other son or daughter of Adam who suffers from inherent sin:

There is none righteous, not even one; There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

Let us therefore put aside all sense of smugness and superiority when we come to consider this tragic figure, for whom we should all feel a deep sense of pity. Let us all acknowledge that, but for the grace of God, there go we. Here is a man who cannot comprehend the love of God and is unconvinced about the love of his father. Here is one who fails to grasp spiritual realities but who also has not been taught them by his parents.

Thirty-seven years too late Esau has learned at least one of the reasons why he felt unloved: his wives displeased his parents. I say “parents,” but you will observe that Esau is not reported to have cared about his mother’s sentiments toward him, only his father’s (verse 8). He had long since given up hope of being loved and accepted by Rebekah. Desperately he sought to win the approval of his father.

If having a non-Canaanite wife was all that it took to please his father, that was a small price to pay for the approval he craved. Failing to see any problem in his actions, Esau took Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael (verse 9). This woman was no Canaanite; she was of the family of Abraham. What could be more pleasing to Isaac than this? But Esau did not understand the matter of purity. Ishmael had been rejected to carry out the line of Abraham because he was a child of self effort (21:12, cf. Galatians 4:22-23). He was a product of fleshly striving, not spiritual dependence. Marriage to a descendant of Ishmael failed to achieve Esau’s intended goal. Without realizing it, he typified in this act the very thing which God most condemned, fleshly striving. Just as Abraham acted on his own to achieve a son, so Esau acted in a fleshly way to win the approval of his father. How appropriate this marriage was, and how ineffectual.

Jacob’s Departure and His Dream

On his journey to Paddan-aram, Jacob was accompanied only by his staff (32:10) and his thoughts. It would not seem difficult to speculate with fair accuracy as to what these thoughts were about. Surely he must have considered the wisdom of his actions in deceiving his father. He must have compared his expectations in this plot with the outcome of it. He should have felt guilt at the thought of his treatment of his brother and father. He undoubtedly grieved at having to leave his mother. He must have wondered what kind of reception he would have from Laban. He would not be able to overlook the fact that he had nothing to offer Laban as a dowry for a wife. What would his wife be like? When would he ever be able to return home?

Whatever his thoughts must have been, I believe that Jacob was finally at the end of himself. I believe that he came to realize that he would never prosper on the basis of his schemes and struggles. His self-assurance was probably at an all-time low. This was the ideal time for God to break into his life, for now Jacob knew how much he needed God in order to be blessed as his father had been.

Night seems to have overtaken Jacob before he arrived at the city of Luz. The city gates would have been closed for the night, so Jacob, as shepherds customarily did, slept under the stars. He found a suitable spot, took a stone from nearby, and propped himself up for the night. In his sleep he had an awe-inspiring vision. He saw a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, with angels ascending and descending upon it. Above this ladder was God, who spoke these words to him:

I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your descendants. Your descendants shall also be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you (Genesis 28:13-15).

This vision has been the victim of many interpreters. Its significance has been said to be deep and profound. I think not. I believe that it was intended to be understood very simply, just as Jacob did. My interpretation of its meaning and significance will be based upon four considerations: (a) the words of God to Jacob; (b) the words immediately spoken by Jacob; (c) the words spoken on a later occasion by Jacob; and (d) the words of our Lord in John 1:51.

The words spoken by God are very similar to previous declarations to Abraham and to Isaac. Isaac’s pronouncement that passed on the blessing of Abraham to Jacob (verse 4) was now confirmed by God Himself. While there are various aspects to these covenant blessings, foremost seems to be the references to the land:

… the land on which you lie; I will give it to you … (verse 13)

… and you shall spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south … (verse 14)

… and will bring you back to this land … (verse 15)

Jacob perceived the significance of the place, too, for he immediately narrowed his thinking to the awesomeness of the place where he lay:

… surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it (verse 16).

… How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (verse 17).

Later on in his life Jacob looked back upon this vision, still realizing the manner in which God signified the special nature of that place:

I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth (Genesis 31:13).

As Jacob, in obedience to this command, approached the land of promise, he received a report that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men (Genesis 32:6). Jacob prayed for protection as he went forward, based upon the promise of God in the vision at Bethel:

Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me, mother with children. For thou didst say, “I will surely prosper you, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 32:11-12).

These statements of God and Jacob fit together nicely, especially in the light of the context of the vision. Jacob was about to leave the land of promise for a twenty year sojourn in Paddan-aram. He might be tempted never to return to this land again. By means of this dramatic vision God impressed Jacob with the significance of this land. It was the place where heaven and earth met. It was the place where God would come down to man and where men would find access to God. It was, as Jacob asserted, “the gate of heaven.” Throughout those twenty years Jacob would never forget this dream. He would realize that ultimately, to be in the will of God, he must be in the place of God’s choosing, the land of promise. It was in the land that God’s blessings would be poured out upon God’s people. While Jacob must leave, he must surely return.

How eagerly the first recipients of this record must have read it. The books of the Law were written by Moses and thus must have been completed before his death and before the entrance of Israel into the promised land. What a sense of anticipation the Israelites must have had as they looked across the river Jordan knowing that, in some special way, God’s presence was to be revealed in that place. The experience on Mount Sinai surely gave substance to this hope.

In the first chapter of John’s gospel Jesus had invited Philip to follow him (1:43). Philip likewise sought out Nathanael, assuring him that he had found the Messiah. This Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth (verse 45). Nathanael wondered at how the Messiah could come from such a place as Nazareth (verse 46). When Jesus saw Nathanael coming, He identified him as a man “in whom is no guile” (verse 47). Further, Jesus indicated that He had seen Nathanael while he was “under the fig tree” (verse 48). This was enough to convince Nathanael that Philip was right—Jesus was the Messiah!

Our Lord did not stop at this, however. While commending his belief, He went on to give even greater revelation concerning Himself:

And He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).

Nathanael had put too much stock in place. How could Messiah come from Nazareth? Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. God had revealed Himself to man in Israel. But while Jacob had focused upon the ground, the place where the ladder was situated, Jesus drew Nathanael’s attention to the ladder itself. He, Jesus of Nazareth, was the ladder. It was not the place where the ladder stood which was now most important but the person who was the ladder. Jacob saw God above the ladder; Jesus revealed God as the ladder. Ultimately it was Jesus Christ who bridged the gap between heaven and earth. It is through Him that God has come down to man. It is through Him that man will have access to God. Jacob saw what he needed to see at that moment in his life. Jesus revealed to Nathanael that there was much more to be seen than what Jacob had perceived in his day.

Jacob’s Declaration

Jacob’s response to this dramatic disclosure of the divine purposes and promises of God can be summarized by three statements.

Jacob Set Up a Pillar

So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. And he called the name of the place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz (Genesis 28:18-19).

The pillar was to serve as a memorial. It marked a place to which he would return to build an altar and worship God.

Jacob Made a Profession of Faith

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the LORD will be my God” (Genesis 28:20-21).

Some are inclined to view the “ifs” of these words as evidence of Jacob’s bargaining nature. It is as though Jacob is striking a deal with God. While Jacob’s faith is certainly immature at this point, I am inclined to view the “ifs” more in the sense of “since,” along with others.234

Jacob Made a Promise

And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee (Genesis 28:22).

Jacob planned to return, consistent with the thrust of the vision he had seen. At that time he would build an altar and give a tithe to God. While the Scriptures record the building of the altar (35:7), no reference can be found to the giving of the tithe. It may be, however, that this tithe was involved in the sacrifices which would be offered upon the altar. There was no command to tithe; this was a voluntary act on Jacob’s behalf.


This chapter has some very sobering lessons for us as parents. Isaac’s apathy in the matter of instructing his sons may sound uncomfortably familiar. In addition to this I find Isaac’s love to be contingent upon Esau’s performance. Isaac “loved Esau because,… ” we are told (25:28). Interestingly, in this same verse we are told only that Rebekah loved Jacob. No conditions are expressed. Look at the insecurity of Esau. Here was a 77-year-old man, still desperately trying to win the love and approval of his father—and with good reason, for his father loved on the basis of his performance.

Then, also, it would seem that as a favored son Esau was pampered by his father. Nowhere are we ever told of the discipline of either of Isaac’s sons. Discipline, as the Bible repeatedly informs us, is one manifestation of genuine love (cf. Proverbs 3:12; 13:24; Hebrews 12:5-11). I cannot help but feel that some words of admonition and correction in the life of Esau would have assured him of his father’s love. Discipline is not the enemy of love but the evidence of it.

Both Jacob and Esau illustrate the futility of scheming and self-effort in achieving divine acceptance. Here Esau’s sincere and diligent efforts to win approval by marrying a daughter of Ishmael are worthless. While his sincerity is evident, his actions do not conform with the requirements of faith. Sincere effort which is not based upon divine revelation is folly.

All of Jacob’s efforts to achieve the blessing of God are in vain as well. It was only by entering into a relationship with the covenant God of Abraham and Isaac that Jacob could experience the blessings of God. The basis for such a relationship was the revealed word of God. I find it amusing that while Jacob could not find God by striving, he was found by God while in his sleep. Surely God is trying to tell us something by this. It is by resting in Him and in His Word that we can be blessed. This does not mean the absence of activity on our part,235 but it does mean that self-effort will always be futile.

Two further lessons from this text should be pointed out. First, place is important. It surely was important so far as Jacob was concerned. Experiencing the blessing of God meant being in the place where God had promised to bless. I hear people say things such as, “I can worship God just as well out on the lake as I can in a church.” But the Word of God tells us, “… not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some …” (Hebrews 10:25). There are surely certain places where it would be difficult, even impossible, for a Christian to be for the glory of God.

Second, a profession of faith does not mean our immediate entrance into blissful experiences and rose-petal-strewn pathways. For twenty years after this conversion experience Jacob was to live away from his mother and father, away from the land of promise. For twenty years Jacob was to be administered a large dose of his own medicine, dealt out by an uncle who was even more deceitful than he. Entering into a relationship with God does not guarantee only good times and happy experiences; but it does assure us of the forgiveness of sins, the hope of eternal life, and the presence of God in our everyday lives.

232 It is possible that Rebekah did realize that Jacob’s separation would be long-term. Was she then making his exit more palatable by saying it was only for a “few days” (27:44)? Surely it would take more than this to travel that distance and return.

233 Cf. Lesson 28, footnote 2, or Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 211.

234 E. G. Stigers, Genesis, p. 228. Cf. also H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 780.

235 Here we see Jacob resting in God, later he will wrestle with God (32:24-30). These two aspects of the Christian life are not contradictory. We are saved only by resting in His Word and His work on our behalf. But God delights to bless His children when they actively prevail with Him in prayer.
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30. I Led Two Wives (Genesis 29:1-30)


Although not from the proverbial horse’s mouth, I heard a story which has the ring of truth to it. A classic car lover was looking for a particular model of Studebaker. In the normal course of his scanning the newspaper, he saw an ad that seemed impossible to believe. Just the car he wanted was advertised, but for a mere $100. Knowing the car should have sold for thousands, he concluded that the car was either in a basket, or there was a misprint. Finally his curiosity got the best of him and he called. A woman answered the phone and assured him that the car was in excellent shape and that there was no mistake about the price.

With the scent of a bargain in the air the car connoisseur hurried over to investigate. To his delight the car proved to be everything the woman reported it to be. It was beautiful. Of course he told her that he would take it—for $100. Twinges of guilt finally became so strong that the man had to confess to the woman, “Ma’am, I have to tell you that this car is worth far more than $100. You should get much more than that for this automobile.” “Oh, I know that,” she replied, “but you see my husband has left me to run off with his secretary. He sent me the title to the car and told me to sell it and send him the money. That’s what I intend to do with the $100.”

It is difficult to hear a story like this without savoring the taste of poetic justice that it contains. I think that most of us get that same feeling when we read Genesis 29. Jacob, the double-dealer, gets a double deal. Jacob, the deceiver, gets outwitted by his uncle Laban. We suppose that Leah was some kind of defective model of womanhood who should have been subject to a factory recall, and we are amused to find that he has to spend the rest of his life stuck with her, although he finally does get to marry the girl he loves.

I would like to challenge much of our interpretation of this chapter, for it does not seem that our conclusions fit the facts, only our desire to watch Jacob get what he deserves. There is that element, of course, but it is not the main theme of the story. Let us approach this episode in the life of Jacob with a view to the gracious dealings of God in the life of this patriarch-to-be.

Love at First Sight

Jacob left Bethel with a lightness in his step236 and a new lease on life. Before his encounter with God, he could only refer to his father’s God as “your God” (27:20). Now, Yahweh was Jacob’s God (28:21). He had seen the vision of the ladder from heaven and heard the promise of God of His presence, provision, and protection. He had the assurance of his return to the land and the blessings of Abraham (28:10-17). There was a new sense of direction, a new hope, and a new meaning to life. He was still going on to Haran, but God was with him.

Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the sons of the east. And he looked, and saw a well in the field, and behold, three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for from that well they watered the flocks. Now the stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, they would then roll the stone from the mouth of the well, and water the sheep, and put the stone back in its place on the mouth of the well (Genesis 29:1-3).

As he approached Haran, Jacob came upon a well which was in a field. It was a different well, I believe, from that one to which the servant of Abraham came (cf. Genesis 24:11). That well was a spring located outside the city to which the women came to draw drinking water (24:11,13). The well to which Jacob came was one in a field well away from the city, and it was more of a cistern from which the cattle drank directly. This well was covered by a large stone, which tended to keep it from being polluted. Perhaps more importantly, it restricted the use of that well to particular times and only to authorized persons. The shepherds, perhaps young lads, sat about the well waiting for the time when they could water their sheep. Jacob engaged these shepherds in conversation:

And Jacob said to them, “My brothers, where are you from?” And they said, “We are from Haran.” And he said to them, “Do you know Laban the son of Nahor?” And they said, “We know him.” And he said to them, “Is it well with him?” And they said, “It is well, and behold, Rachel his daughter is coming with the sheep” (Genesis 29:4-6).

Jacob wanted to learn how far he was from his destination. The shepherds’ response told him he was very near to Haran. His question about Laban’s welfare was not academic. He had a vital interest in the present state of affairs in Laban’s family. To some degree, the success of his journey could be measured by the shepherds’ reply. To Jacob’s relief Laban was doing well, and, more than this, he had a daughter who was to arrive at the well soon. It was best to wait for her to be directed to his home.

In the meantime, Jacob inquired about a matter which struck him as quite unusual:

And he said, “Behold, it is still high day; it is not time for the livestock to be gathered. Water the sheep, and go pasture them.” But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are gathered, and they roll the stone from the mouth of the well; then we water the sheep” (Genesis 29:7-8).

The sheep would not be gathered in for the night until much later, as it was still early in the day. It made little sense to Jacob for these shepherds to be sitting about the well waiting until later to water their sheep when they could water them now and take them back to pasture for several hours. The practical thing to do was to water the sheep now and not to wait until later.

The shepherds were not at all impressed by the question or informed as to the care of sheep. Indeed, his question may have seemed foolish to them. Of course Jacob was right. Even these boys knew that sheep grew faster grazing on the grassland rather than standing about the well where the grass had long before been consumed. However, the well was not, it seems, to be used at their convenience.

A well was a valuable resource, much as an oil well would be today. As such, it had to belong to somebody, and that person would prescribe how and when the well was to be used, and probably at what price. The agreement between the well owner and the shepherds seems to be that the well could be used once a day. The shepherds must first be gathered at the well with their flocks. Then the owner or his hired servants (“they,” verse 8) would roll the large stone away and the sheep could be watered, perhaps in the order that the flocks arrived. This would explain why the shepherds and their flocks were there so early. In this way, what was most profitable (this is what Jacob’s question was getting at) was not practical. The owner’s stipulations must be adhered to.

During the course of this conversation Rachel arrived. With this, Jacob had little interest in the shepherd boys, for she was a relative and a lovely young girl:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherdess. And it came about, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother’s brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother’s brother, that Jacob went up, and rolled the stone from the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of Laban his mother’s brother. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted his voice and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and that he was Rebekah’s son, and she ran and told her father (Genesis 29:9-12).

Some commentators actually suggest that Jacob suggested to the shepherds that they water their sheep immediately in order to get rid of them before Rachel arrived so that he could meet her alone.237 This hardly seems to be the case. He would not have known her age or beauty and surely would have wanted to meet her under proper circumstances.

I am, however, interested in the sequence of events that occurred when Jacob and Rachel met. I would have expected Jacob to introduce himself first, then to kiss her, and finally to water her sheep. Just the reverse is reported.238 First Jacob watered the sheep of Laban, casting aside any consideration of what he had been told by the shepherds. Then he kissed her—the first instance of “kissing cousins.” Finally, he introduced himself as her relative. If this order of events is correct, Jacob cast all convention aside, and Rachel might have been somewhat swept off her feet by such a romantic gesture. All of this, I must remind you, is reading considerably between the lines.

And so the two have met. It may not have been “love at first sight,” but it could have been. The meeting of these two sets the stage for the next phase of their relationship.

Seven Years Till Wedding Night

When Rachel ran home with her report of meeting Jacob, Laban was quick to respond:

So it came about, when Laban heard the news of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Then he related to Laban all these things. And Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” And he stayed with him a month (Genesis 29:13-14).

Laban’s greeting suggests no more to me than the fact that he extended the normal hospitality which should have been expected, especially for a near relative.239 Jacob, we are told, “related to Laban all these things” (verse 13). We might wonder what “these things” were. We should reasonably expect that Jacob reported about his family and their health. Primarily, Laban would have wished to know about his sister Rebekah. I think that Jacob also reported the events which led to his journey to Paddan-aram, including the deception of his father. I would imagine that Jacob would also have mentioned that he came to seek a wife. This report was sufficient for Laban to be convinced that Jacob was who he claimed to be and, therefore, a near kin to him. This close proximity of relationship was not without its significance to Laban,240 but later events will suggest this more convincingly.

Jacob’s month-long stay with Laban had at least two results. First, it brought Jacob and Rachel into close contact and helped to kindle a deep affection for each other. Jacob now had a reason to stay with Laban. And as for Laban, this month proved Jacob to be a most valuable worker. While Jacob possessed nothing but the promise of future wealth and blessing, he was a good worker. He would make a fine son-in-law and could stay on to work for Laban in place of the traditional dowry. This month brought both Laban and Jacob to the conclusion that a continuing relationship between them could be of mutual advantage.

At the end of that month, Laban sought to formalize the relationship between himself and Jacob:

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my relative, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” (Genesis 29:15).

While Laban is not reported to have any sons at this point in time, he did have an older daughter, who was to play a crucial role in the events that were to follow:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the oldest was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful of form and face (Genesis 29:16-17).

Few women have been so misunderstood as Leah. Even her name does her a great disservice, for it means “wild cow.”241 The statement that she had “weak eyes” (verse 17) seems to many to portray Leah as a homely girl with pop-bottle glasses, who cannot see three feet in front of her. This kind of thinking is completely unjustified.

First, the word rendered “weak” (rak) is never used in a demeaning way, as is here suggested. Never is the term used with reference to any defect.242 For example, in Genesis 18:7 Moses used this word, and there it is translated “tender”: “Abraham also ran to the herd, and took a tender and choice calf, and gave it to the servant; and he hurried to prepare it” (emphasis added).

Moses used the word again in chapter 33 with reference to the young children, who were too frail to be hurried: “But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. And if they are driven hard one day, all the flocks will die’” (Genesis 33:13; emphasis added).

If we are to take the word rak, which is rendered “weak” in 29:17, in its normal sense, then, we cannot think in terms of defect but in terms of delicacy. In contrast with Rachel, who may have had fire or a sparkle in her eyes, Leah had gentle eyes.

I must warn you in advance that I am inclined to go one step further than any commentator I am aware of. I think that we must also consider the meaning of the term “eyes.” Strange as it may seem, this word used for the physical organs of sight often refers to much more than the physical eye. It also depicts one’s character, just as the expression “kidneys” refers to human emotions and thoughts (cf. Psalm 7:9; 16:7; 26:2; Revelation 2:23). In the Old Testament, then, we find these kinds of references to the eyes:

And you shall consume all the peoples whom the LORD your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you (Deuteronomy 7:16).

Beware, lest there is a base thought in your heart, saying, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and your eye is hostile toward your poor brother, and you give him nothing; then he may cry to the LORD against you, and it will be a sin in you (Deuteronomy 15:9).

Perhaps the most interesting use of the word “eye” is in two verses, both of which contain the word “eye” and the word “refined” (Hebrew, rak):

The man who is refined and very delicate among you shall be hostile toward {lit. his eye shall be evil toward, margin, NASV} his brother and toward the wife he cherishes and toward the rest of his children who remain (Deuteronomy 28:54).

The refined and delicate woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground for delicateness and refinement, shall be hostile toward {lit. her eye shall be evil toward, margin, NASV} the husband she cherishes and toward her son and daughter (Deuteronomy 28:56).

It is an established fact that the eyes are used in the Old and New Testament as “shewing mental qualities” such as arrogance, humility, mockery, and pity.243 I believe that it is in this sense that the eyes of Leah are spoken of. In connection with the word rak, I would conclude that the disposition of Leah was one of gentleness and tenderness, while Rachel seems to have had a more fiery and aggressive temperament. Regardless of whether or not my conclusions are accepted, the idea of defect in Leah is highly suspect and without precedent in the scriptural use of these terms.

Rachel is characterized only by her physical attractiveness. She was “beautiful of form and face” (verse 17). Moses may be drawing our attention to this fact because it was the major source of attraction for Jacob. There seems to be, then, a significant contrast here between Rachel and Rebekah. Rebekah was selected for Isaac by Abraham’s servant on the basis of divine guidance and because of personal qualities which assured him that she would be a fine wife for Isaac. Rachel, on the other hand, was selected by Jacob for himself, but without any mention of her personal qualities, only a description of her beauty. Rebekah’s beauty was an additional plus, an unexpected fringe benefit; Rachel’s beauty was the essence of her selection. The red warning lights should already be flashing in our minds.

On this questionable basis Jacob chose Rachel, the younger, over Leah, the older, and proposed the terms of the payment of the dowry:

Now Jacob loved Rachel, so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel” (Genesis 29:18).

Laban’s response was positive but somewhat vague:

… It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to another man; stay with me (Genesis 29:19).

I do not know for certain that Laban had already purposed to deceive Jacob by switching wives, but his response certainly left him room for it. It was positive enough for Jacob to know that his offer had been accepted. It was, I think, a premium price but one that Jacob didn’t mind paying:

So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her (Genesis 29:20).

Nevertheless, Laban did not specify that the seven years of service would immediately or necessarily bring about a marriage to Rachel. He simply implied it, and in his romantic state of ecstasy Jacob assumed what he wished to believe.

Some suppose that at 77 years of age Jacob could have cared less about waiting seven years to marry. I would be inclined to disagree. The point of verse 20 is that Rachel was well worth the high price which Jacob had agreed to pay for her—a price measured in years of service rather than dollars. Jacob’s statement to Laban in the next verse strongly implies that he was eager and anxious to consummate the marriage for which he had long waited.

Shock at First Light

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is completed, that I may go in to her” (Genesis 29:21).

It is difficult to read this verse without concluding that there was a great deal of romantic passion in that 77-year-old man. His physical desire for Rachel is certainly to be expected. Ironically, it is this physical appetite, much like Isaac’s desire for wild game (25:28; 27:3-4), that caused Jacob to act too hastily and bind himself to a life-long commitment.

And Laban gathered all the men of the place, and made a feast. Now it came about in the evening that he took his daughter Leah, and brought her to him; and Jacob went in to her. Laban also gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah as a maid. So it came about in the morning that, behold, it was Leah! And he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served with you? Why then have you deceived me?” (Genesis 29:22-25)

It is with great discretion that Moses has described this most delicate and intimate matter. Where Hollywood would have inserted pages of elaboration Moses has given us a parenthetical statement about the maid which Laban gave his daughter. We must therefore deal with this subject in a manner which is consistent with the emphasis of the text and with standards of righteousness.

For seven years Jacob had waited for this day. His eagerness is natural and normal. At the feast he may have had sufficient wine to somewhat dull his senses. The guests would be aware of his entrance into the tent (and the matrimonial bed where Leah waited) and also of his exit, thus indicating that the marriage had been consummated by the union of the bride and groom (cf. Judges 14:10-15:2; Psalm 19:5). The same passion which dominated Jacob as he chose his bride now ruled as he entered into that tent. It is hardly a wonder that Jacob should have made the mistake that he did.

Early the next morning Jacob awoke. What a beautiful day! What a wonderful night! What an exciting future! What a shock as the sunlight burst into the tent to reveal that the woman in his arms was Leah, not Rachel! What irony that Jacob should repeat the identical words of Pharaoh to Abraham (12:18) and almost the same expression of Abimelech to Abraham (20:9) and Abimelech to Isaac (26:10): “What is this you have done to me?” While it is not recorded, it is easy to believe that Isaac also asked this of Jacob after his great deception. The shoe is now on the other foot; the deceiver has now been deceived. Those who choose to live by the sword die by it.

Laban was not taken back by Jacob’s rebuke. He had probably planned his response to this question long before this confrontation took place.

But Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place, to marry off the younger before the first-born. Complete the bridal week of this one, and we will give you the other also for the service which you shall serve with me for another seven years.” And Jacob did so and completed her week, and he gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife. Laban also gave his maid Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maid. So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and indeed he loved Rachel more than Leah, and he served with Laban for another seven years (Genesis 29:26-30).

The end result was that Laban married off both his daughters. Also, he managed to get a premium price for both. Jacob ended up with two wives rather than one, and he worked twice as hard to get what he desired.


Fewer passages contain more lessons for living than this chapter. Let me suggest some of these under several headings.

The Consequences of Sin

Previously we have noted that one of the consequences of the sin of Jacob’s deceiving Isaac was his physical and emotional separation from those he loved. A second consequence is the moral parallel to Newton’s law of motion: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. In our Lord’s words, “… all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Jacob chose to get ahead in life by means of deception. Jacob learned the sad lesson that those who seek to deceive shall be deceived.

The tragedy of this chapter is that all that took place was unnecessary. All we need to do is to contrast the acquisition of Rachel with that of Rebekah. The resources of Abraham made it possible for Isaac to have a wife in a very short period of time (cf. 24:54ff.). One reason for this was the fact that the servant had the dowry from the riches of Abraham, Isaac’s father. One of the consequences of Jacob’s sin was that he had to leave Canaan—to flee empty-handed. Since Jacob sinned, he was separated from the wealth of his father and had only the work of his own hands. The fourteen years of Jacob’s labor would have been unnecessary, I believe, had it not been for his deception of Isaac. Perhaps Isaac sent Jacob away without any of his wealth to teach him the value of hard work. Or perhaps it was to force Jacob to stay away a long time by working for a wife. This we do not know, but it does seem that this 14-year delay was unnecessary and purely the result of sin. What a price to pay!

There is one striking difference between the consequences of sin today and those of Jacob. Our sins, like his, separate us from God now and eternally (e.g. Psalm 66:18; II Thessalonians 1:9; Revelation 20:12-15). However, while the work of Jacob’s hands was able to earn him a wife, the works of our hands cannot earn any of God’s blessings or salvation:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment … (Isaiah 64:6).

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

The good news of the gospel is that we who are sinners and cannot help ourselves can be saved by trusting in the work which Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. It is by trusting in His death as our substitute and in His righteousness that we can experience the blessings of God now and in eternity.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

The Grace of God

Some may view the events of this chapter as God’s getting even with Jacob. Others would merely interpret them as a kind of poetic justice. I prefer to understand them as an evidence of the marvelous grace of God at work in the life of Jacob. God did not bring these events to pass to punish Jacob but to instruct him. Punishment has been born by our Savior on the cross, but discipline is the corrective training which furthers us on the path leading to godliness (cf. Hebrews 12).

Jacob learned the value of convention. The agreement which regulated the use of the well (verses 2-3, 7-8) seemed to mean little to Jacob. In the excitement of meeting Rachel he decided to use the well regardless of the rules for its use. He may also have disregarded some conventions in the way that he greeted Rachel (verses 10-12). He certainly chose to disregard the convention of marrying the first-born first. I do not believe that Laban was telling Jacob anything new but reminding him of something that could not, and should not, be taken lightly or disregarded.

In addition to all this, Jacob experienced the grace of God in the delay of 14 plus years. It was this delay which contributed to the preservation of Jacob’s life by keeping him away from the anger of Esau, who had purposed to kill him.

Amazingly, the grace of God was manifested in this event by the gift of Leah as a wife to Jacob. This is probably the last thought to cross our minds, but I believe that it is a defensible position. First, we must acknowledge that, in the providence of God (and in spite of the deceptiveness of Laban), Leah was Jacob’s wife. Furthermore, it was Leah, not Rachel, who became the mother of Judah, who was to be the heir through whom the Messiah would come (cf. 49:8-12). Also it was Levi, a son of Leah, who provided the priestly line in later years. It seems noteworthy that both Leah and her handmaid had at least twice the number of children as compared to Rachel and her maid (cf. 29:31-30:24; 46:15,18,22,25). The firstborn was always to have a double portion; and so it would seem Leah did, so far as children are concerned.

One final factor remains which evidences the superiority of Leah to Rachel. Rachel dies at an early age, yet she was the younger sister. When she died, she was buried on the way to Bethlehem (35:19). Yet when Leah died later, she was buried with Jacob in the cave at Machpelah (49:31). Leah was not a blight to Jacob but a blessing.


How different was the process by which Isaac obtained Rebekah as a wife from that means through which Jacob acquired Rachel. Isaac was subject to his father, and it was through the wisdom of his father and his servant, through the financial means of Abraham, and through prayer that she was obtained. Jacob went off on his own with none of his father’s resources. He chose the woman with the greatest beauty and bargained with Laban for her.

To me there is no doubt but what Jacob was guided more by his hormones than any other factor. He did not pray about this matter, so far as we are told. He did not give any consideration to matters of character. He did not seek counsel. In fact, he sought to overturn the customs of the day and the preferences of Laban.

We live in a very romantically-oriented day. We find ourselves cheering for Rachel and booing Leah. God seems to have been on the other side. What is romantic is not always right—often it is wrong. Romanticism caused Jacob to use the well when and how he saw fit, regardless of the rules set by the owner. Romanticism led Jacob to chose Rachel, not Leah. Romanticism so controlled Jacob that under its spell he spent an entire night with the wrong woman. We must beware of those decisions which are determined by romantic impressions or feelings.


Few things are as important to women today as beauty. Perhaps nothing is more important to men today than beauty. Rachel was a wonderfully-endowed woman. There is nothing wrong with that. Sarah was beautiful, and so was Rebekah. But outward beauty must always be considered a secondary consideration. Jacob looked at Rachel’s exterior and investigated no further into her character. The writer, King Lemuel, was not in error when he gave this counsel:

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30).

This same theme is prominent in the New Testament (cf. I Timothy 2:9-10; I Peter 3:1-6).

Men and boys, this is a word for us. We all want to be seen with the beautiful girls. We all have dreamed of dating them. Some have made great sacrifices to marry a showpiece. Let us look first for character, and if we find it, let us look no further. If we find character with charm and beauty, let us consider ourselves fortunate.

It was not outward beauty which made that first night such a beautiful thing between Jacob and Rachel—it was Jacob’s love for her, and (I am convinced) her love for him. It is love, not beauty, which makes for heaven in the bedroom. Let us not forget it.

Ladies, I realize that our society has placed a premium on glamour and beauty. I understand that much of your sense of self-worth is based upon your outward attractiveness and “sex appeal.” However, that is wrong. Our ultimate worth is that estimation which comes from God. God was not impressed with Rachel’s good looks. After all, He gave that to her in the first place. God looked upon the heart and blessed Leah. Her worth, while never fully realized by her husband, was great in the eyes of God. May all of us learn to be content with ourselves as God made us, and may we find our real worth in the realm of the spirit.

But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance, or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as men sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).

For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? (I Corinthians 4:7)

236 Literally, the text here reads, “Then Jacob lifted up his feet . . .”

237 W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 270; C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), Vol. I, p. 285.

238 In the New International Version the translators attempt to correct this seeming lack of etiquette by translating verse 13, “He had told Rachel that he was a relative . . .” Perhaps so, but not necessarily. Surely the text does not demand such a rendering.

239 Leupold strains a bit to suggest that Laban’s expressions of affections were overdone: “Without a doubt, the man was glad to meet a nephew and ‘embraced him’ in all sincerity and ‘kissed him repeatedly’ with true affection. Yet the Piel stem yenashseq does not mean just ‘give a kiss’ as does the kai wayyishshoq (v. 11). Perhaps the overplus of affection displayed carries with it a trace of insincerity, for the truest affection does not make a display of itself.” H. C. Leupold, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 790.

240 At this point Laban was not reported to have any sons. He may very well have hoped to adopt Jacob as a son, making him his heir, and also providing security for himself in his old age. Such arrangements were not unusual in that time. This we shall describe more fully in a later lesson.

241 Leupold, Genesis, II, p. 793.

242 Thus Stigers states: “The comparison is with the less beautiful as the degree of contrast, not with the one who is sickly. The word rak is usually used to connote delicateness in upbringing (Deut. 28:50) and of women (28:56), not of physical defects of a pathological sort.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 230.

243 Francis Brown; S. R. Driver; and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966), p. 744.
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31. The Battle of the Brides (Genesis 29:31-30:24)

(A Study of Love, Sex, Marriage, and Children)


One of my seminary professors, Dr. Bruce Waltke, used to compare Isaac with Jacob by likening Isaac to a slow leak, while Jacob was a blow-out. That’s not bad, and neither is it far from the truth. The story of Jacob’s marriage and family life leaves a great deal to be desired. In fact, our passage reads much like a modern-day soap opera. The story told is one of competition between two women and their maids, which results in Jacob being shuttled from bedroom to bedroom, tent to tent. Modern-day soap operas deal with a very similar kind of plot. However, God’s “soap” is not intended to encourage us to think sinful thoughts or to commit illicit acts but rather to “clean up our own acts” and to live righteously before Him.

Let us remember that Jacob is, at this point in time, living outside the land of promise. While God has promised His presence, protection, and provision, He is also at work in Jacob’s life to purge out many of the sinful patterns that have characterized him in the past. Consequently, while God is with Jacob, all does not go well with him in these days. Many of the consequences of his previous sins catch up with him. His choice of Rachel on primarily physical grounds and his insistence that he have her, even after he has married Leah, leads to a most distressing home and family life.

As we approach this passage, let us be aware of the fact that Moses has not arranged the events chronologically but topically. With only a little simple mathematics we can quickly discern that too many children are born in these verses to have been born one after the other. There must be some overlap in the births.244 By arranging the births as he has, Moses enables us to feel more intensely the division and competition between Leah and Rachel. We read these verses like someone watching a tennis match, we look first at the one contestant, then at the other, and so on. That is just the way this account is written so that we might be able to identify with these two women, both of whom desperately want to be assured of Jacob’s love and affection.

Leah Longs for Love:

In her early years of child-rearing we find Leah at the high point of her spiritual life.245 God’s loving intervention in her life is evident to her, and she gratefully acknowledges it:

Now the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, and He opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. And Leah conceived and bore a son and named him Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has seen my affliction; surely now my husband will love me” (Genesis 29:31-32).

What a pathetic predicament Leah is in. She is married to a man who never wanted her for a wife and who refuses to give her the love she desperately needs. God lovingly reached out to Leah by giving her a much-desired son, Reuben. Reuben means something like “see, a son” (cf. margin, NASV). It was a great joy for Leah to be able to provide Jacob with a man child, who would become his heir. This child kindled Leah’s hope of being loved by Jacob, whose love for Rachel was so strong that he hardly acknowledged Leah’s existence. The barrenness of Rachel at least drove Jacob to the tent of Leah to provide himself with sons who would prosper him.

Leah’s hopes for a small portion of Jacob’s affection were not realized, as is seen by her response to her second son’s birth:

Then she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Because the LORD has heard that I am unloved, He has therefore given me this son also.” So she named him Simeon (Genesis 29:33).

No change in Jacob’s attitudes or actions had been perceived by Leah, and so when the second son was born she acknowledged the child as the tender response of a loving God Who knew the very thoughts of her heart. The name Simeon, “he hears,” gave testimony to Leah’s awareness of the grace of her God.

With the birth of her third son, Leah’s hope for Jacob’s tenderness and affection was once again aroused:

And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “Now this time my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons.” Therefore he was named Levi (Genesis 29:34).

Two things have changed since the birth of Reuben, the firstborn. First, Leah has now provided Jacob with three sons, not just one. The mere quantity of children she has borne should impress Jacob with her value to him, especially since Rachel had produced none. Second, her hopes have become much more realistic. She no longer aspires to the high level of love which Jacob had for Rachel but merely for the attachment which any man should have for a wife who is so fruitful. If I understand her words correctly, the attachment which Leah desires is not so much that of affection but of obligation. How can Jacob not feel more kindly toward her because of these sons she has given him?

While three sons did little to change Jacob’s heart, the birth of the fourth was the occasion for Leah’s most devout expression of praise and thanksgiving toward the God Who had heard her prayers:

And she conceived again and bore a son and said, “This time I will praise the LORD.” Therefore she named him Judah. Then she stopped bearing (Genesis 29:35).

Previously, Leah had been grateful to God for the children He had given, but uppermost in her thoughts was the effect this might have upon Jacob. She sought his love so desperately. The pinnacle of Leah’s piety was that point at which she came to recognize that to be loved and led by God was a far greater thing than to be loved by any man. While Jacob’s affection was still something she greatly desired, she was content with the abundant love of God. In Him she was abundantly blessed. To Him she would give praise. And thus it was that the name Judah, which, in effect, meant “praise the Lord,” was given to her fourth son.

Rachel Fumes at Leah’s Fertility

Praising God was easy for Leah with four sons at her side; however, seeing her sister’s blessing only aroused jealousy in Rachel:

Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she became jealous of her sister; and she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die.” Then Jacob’s anger burned against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2)

On this occasion neither Rachel nor Jacob responded in what could be called a pious manner. Rachel, desperately jealous of Leah’s fruitfulness, demanded children of Jacob. Rather than recognize her barrenness as coming from the hand of God, she sought to shift the blame to Jacob. It was all his fault, she insisted.

Jacob did not respond well to this kind of demand. Of course, he was right in the logic of what he said. It was God who kept Rachel from bearing children. Jacob was not able to overrule the hand of God. However, Jacob’s attitude is suspect. His hot response seems far removed from true righteous indignation. I think it was much more one of outrage: “Don’t blame me for your barrenness, Rachel, blame God.” Her demand struck hard at Jacob’s virility and male ego, so Jacob struck back just as fiercely. The fact that he employed spiritual language and used God to rebuke her does not mean that his spirit was right in what he did. We often employ pious words to cut people to the quick.

Like Rachel, Rebekah had been barren, but Isaac’s response was quite different from Jacob’s. He prayed on behalf of Rebekah, and on his behalf God gave his wife children (Genesis 25:21). No such prayers are mentioned here, nor are we told that God answered the prayers of Jacob. We are only told that God heard the petitions of the wives (30:17,22). Elkanah gave Hannah special treatment and tenderness because of her inability to bear children (I Samuel 1:5,8), but no such gentleness characterizes Jacob.

While we are told that Jacob had a great love for Rachel (29:18,20,30), it is not very evident at this difficult time in Rachel’s life. Her jealousy implies that she lacks assurance of Jacob’s love. She fears not having children, and because of that she makes a desperate proposal:

And she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.” So she gave him her maid Bilhah as a wife, and Jacob went in to her. And Bilhah conceived and bore a son. Then Rachel said, “God has vindicated me, and has indeed heard my voice and has given me a son.” Therefore she named him Dan (Genesis 30:3-6).

There are definite similarities between this proposal and that of Sarai in Genesis 16. Each intended to adopt the child born from the union of her husband and her maid, but here the similarity stops. Sarai made her proposal at a time when Abram had no children (16:1), while Jacob already had several sons through Leah before Rachel’s proposal. While Sarai’s proposal came more from circumstances which seemed to demand desperate measures, Rachel’s demand stemmed from her own pride and jealousy. She must have children of her own, and she would take any steps necessary to get them.

The results were as Rachel had hoped, and her response to the birth of this boy sounded most spiritual. One would think that Rachel had done a most wonderful and sacrificial thing in giving her maid to Jacob. Her words were intended to give credit to God for all that she and He had accomplished together. The name Dan meant “judged.” She claimed that God had judged the matter of her dispute with her sister Leah and had sided with her as proven by the birth of this child. Nowhere are we told that God opened the womb of Bilhah, however. After all, wasn’t the birth of a child the natural result of such a union? Humanly speaking, God would have had to intervene into the normal course of affairs to have prevented this birth, but Rachel was anxious to have God on her side.

The statement made by Rachel on the occasion of the birth of Bilhah’s second son is more reflective, I believe, of her true spiritual state at this time:

And Rachel’s maid Bilhah conceived again and bore Jacob a second son. So Rachel said, “With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister and I have indeed prevailed.” And she named him Naphtali (Genesis 30:7-8).

Rachel saw herself in a great struggle, not with God, but with her sister. This she described as a wrestling match246 which she won. Her main interest and concern is that in the birth of this second child she has won out over Leah. How, I am not sure, for how can two adopted sons win out over four of Leah’s sons? Here God is neither mentioned nor praised. Rachel is preoccupied with the contest between herself and Leah, and she claims to have won. At this point in her life Rachel does not strike me as a spiritual woman in humble submission to the will of God.

Leah Learns a Lesson

How far Leah falls from her grateful acceptance of God’s blessings in previous verses. Rachel, while undoubtedly wrong in proposing that Jacob sleep with Bilhah, at least can be understood to have been reacting to her barrenness; but Leah already has four sons of her own. There was no need to give her maid Zilpah to Jacob for a wife—other than the fact that this was what Rachel had done. Leah and Rachel are in a head-to-head confrontation. If Rachel can employ her maid in this contest, so can she.

When Leah saw that she had stopped bearing, she took her maid Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “How fortunate!” So she named him Gad. And Leah’s maid Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “Happy am I! For women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher (Genesis 30:9-13).

Leah’s speech betrays her here. Not once is God mentioned. In the fervent heat of this battle between two wives, little thought is given to the ethics of their actions, only to the expected results. She who previously had viewed her children as a gift from a gracious and caring God now sees these sons as merely good fortune—“How lucky I am,” “How fortunate,” and “How happy am I.” Religious devotion has been thrown to the wind. For anyone keeping score, Leah was ahead of Rachel 4 to 2, but that was not enough. Now she has added two more points to the scoreboard. However, in the process of gaining ground on her sister she has forfeited the godliness she once demonstrated. The focus of her thinking has shifted from God’s estimation of her actions to the praise she would be given by other women (verse 13).

The Purchase of a Potion

Reuben’s innocent discovery of an ancient “love-producing potion” provided the occasion for another confrontation and contest between Jacob’s two wives:

Now in the days of wheat harvest Reuben went and found mandrakes in the field, and brought them to his mother Leah. Then Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s mandrakes.” But she said to her, “Is it a small matter for you to take my husband? And would you take my son’s mandrakes also?” So Rachel said, “Therefore he may lie with you tonight in return for your son’s mandrakes.” When Jacob came in from the field in the evening, then Leah went out to meet him and said, “You must come in to me, for I have surely hired you with my son’s mandrakes.” So he lay with her that night. And God gave heed to Leah, and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. Then Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I gave my maid to my husband.” So she named him Issachar (Genesis 30:14-18).

Mandrakes were berries found in that part of the world which were thought to stimulate the desire for “love-making” and also to enhance the chances of conception.247 Leah, I suppose, was more interested in these berries for the former quality, Rachel for the latter. While temporarily not bearing children, Leah’s greatest need was to get Jacob into her tent where nature could take its course. Rachel, on the other hand, had Jacob with her nearly every night, but she seemed unable to become pregnant.

We may tend to be amused at the credulity of these women who supposed that such a love potion would be of any benefit. However, before we become too smug in our sophisticated and enlightened day, let me remind you that millions, perhaps billions, are spent on cosmetics by Americans each year. Every day the tooth paste and the perfume commercials convince us that whiter teeth or cleaner breath or a more “come hither” perfume will do what nothing else can to enhance our love life. So you see, things have not really changed so much over the centuries after all.

Rachel greatly desired to use some of these berries and asked Leah for some of them. Leah’s strong retort reminds us that, in her mind, it was Rachel who had stolen her husband from her. She viewed herself as Jacob’s legitimate wife rather than Rachel, who was merely his romantic preference.

Knowing what it was that Leah wanted from those mandrakes, Rachel proposed a bargain. Leah needed something to get Jacob interested in her, to get him to want to come into her tent. Since Rachel nearly always was the one with whom Jacob spent the night, she could assure Leah that Jacob would sleep with her this night. Thus, whether Leah was appealing or not, she would get what she wanted: Jacob, alone, for the night. In exchange for this one night, Rachel got the mandrakes, which she hoped would enable her to conceive.

What a sad state of affairs Jacob’s marriage had come to. He had so failed as a husband that his wife had to resort to a form of prostitution to purchase his services as her husband. And Rachel was so lacking in faith that she put her trust in mandrakes rather than the God Who made them. Rachel, it would appear, attempted to produce sons like Jacob sought to produce sheep, by the use of magical devices (cf. 30:37-43).

Her night with Jacob did bring about what Leah had hoped for, another son. It was not because of mandrakes but because God had compassion on her that she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son. It must be in spite of her bargaining with Rachel and not because of it that God blessed Leah.

I believe that Leah wrongly interpreted the meaning of God’s gift of that fifth son. It was, in my mind, a gift of God’s grace in response to her pitiable circumstances that the son was begotten; but Leah chose to interpret this son as evidence of God’s approval and blessing of her giving her maid Zilpah to Jacob (verse 18). In her days, as in ours, true believers are all too quick to credit God with the “successes” of life which are a result of our sins. We seek to sanctify our sins by saying that God was behind it all. My friends, I sincerely believe that God is given too much credit whenever we make Him our partner in sin. Pious words do not necessarily prove pious works.

Finally, Leah is reported to give birth to a sixth son and also a daughter:

And Leah conceived again and bore a sixth son to Jacob. Then Leah said, “God has endowed me with a good gift; now my husband will dwell with me, because I have borne him six sons.” So she named him Zebulun. And afterward she bore a daughter and named her Dinah (Genesis 30:19-21).

Leah does not return to that high level of praise which we witnessed in Genesis 29:35, but she has certainly recovered some grasp of the grace of God as seen in the gift of the sixth son. The fact that this son was a good gift from God suggested a hope still flickering in the heart of Leah that her husband would somehow, someday, come to value her as a person and to regard her as a wife. The translators of the NASV have chosen to render Leah’s words with the idea of Jacob’s dwelling with her. Thus, it would appear that she desires Jacob to spend more time in her tent as compared with the disproportionate time spent with Rachel. Perhaps, now, with six sons coming from her Jacob will regard her more highly.248

The report of Dinah’s birth is intended to introduce her to us in preparation for the tragic events of Genesis 34. Other daughters were born (cf. 46:15), but she is the one who receives the greatest attention.

Rachel is Remembered

After all of Rachel’s devices and schemes have been exhausted, yet without any children from her own womb, God grants her the desire of her heart:

Then God remembered Rachel, and God gave heed to her and opened her womb. So she conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” And she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD give me another son” (Genesis 30:22-23).

Prayer does not immediately occur to Rachel as the solution to her stigma of barrenness, but it does seem to be her last resort. I never cease to be amazed at myself and others who leave prayer in the category of “last ditch” actions.

The name “Joseph” is significant in two ways. The Hebrew word ’asap, “has taken away,” has reference to the removal of the barrenness which had so plagued Rachel. A similar sounding word, yosep,249 “may … add,” expresses the further hope of Rachel that she be given the privilege of having yet another son to present to her husband.

It must have been nearly seven years after her marriage to Jacob that Rachel finally bore him a son. There may be significance to this delay. Jacob, due to his deception and deceit, was delayed in the process of getting a wife for himself. Perhaps Rachel was delayed in her attempts to have a child for the same reasons. She, too, was willing to employ questionable methods to obtain a son. Only after all these futile efforts were thwarted and shown to be without result does God open Rachel’s womb, and that may be in answer to her prayers. Rachel is yet to have another child, but he will come at the cost of her own life (35:16ff.).


The implications of this text are so numerous that I can only mention some and suggest that you give them more thought.

The nation Israel, which first read this book from the pen of Moses, learned the wisdom of the Law, which forbade a man to marry a woman and her sister (Leviticus 18:18). Furthermore, this account of the origin of the twelve tribes of Israel must have proved to be most humbling to the nation, for it was hardly a story which inspired national pride. Perhaps at the time of the exodus and during the days of the conquest of the land the people began to think too highly of themselves (cf. Deuteronomy 6:10ff.). They might falsely have concluded that God had blessed them because of their greatness and noble “roots.” This story would serve to remind them that their “roots” were no basis for pride whatsoever. They must never trust in their heritage, as the Jews of Jesus’ day did (cf. John 8:33,39), but in the God of their heritage. This is why God instructed them to recite their origins at the presentation of the first-fruits:

And you shall answer and say before the LORD your God, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; but there he became a great, mighty and populous nation” (Deuteronomy 26:5).

We may be inclined to read this account of the struggles between Leah and Rachel and think of it as the “long ago” and the “far away” and thus of little application to us. Such could not be farther from the truth. There are differences between the culture of that day and our own, but, as one of my friends observed, the only difference between the practice of Jacob in his day and that in our own is that he lived with his four wives simultaneously, while we live with ours consecutively. We do with divorce what Jacob did with polygamy.

A distinct cultural turnover in values has occurred since that day as well. Women of that era tended to determine their value on the basis of how many children they could produce for their husbands. This seems to underlie the words of Leah: “Happy am I! For women will call me happy …” (Genesis 30:13).

Nowadays, women consider children a burden rather than a blessing. Children are considered a hindrance to fulfillment rather than its means. Consequently, birth control devices are thought to be the key to freedom, and abortion is a necessity for a woman’s happiness.

I would like to suggest that life’s meaning should not be equated with either. Rachel and Leah were both in error by making a good gift from God (children) the ultimate touchstone of fulfillment and happiness. Leah could tell you that this did not prove out. So, today, a career will not bring a woman (or a man) fulfillment either. Leah was far closer to the truth at the time of Judah’s birth, for then she looked to God for her worth, meaning, and approval rather than to any man, including her husband. The worship of God is man’s highest and most noble end. Neither children nor careers will replace it. The biblical position seems to be that mothers who raise their children to be faithful worshippers of God have fulfilled their calling in life (cf. I Timothy 2:15).

Now I wish to press on to several lessons from this text pertaining to love, sex, marriage, and children.

(1) Sex, love, marriage, and family can never be fully satisfying unless enjoyed within the confines of the will of God and the Word of God. I see the family life of Jacob as a disaster. I believe that Moses is showing us by inference that while Jacob is outside the land of promise he may belong to God and be assured of His presence, protection, provision, and future promises; but he can never be happy there. Love, sex, marriage, and family are all gifts from a good and loving God, but their enjoyment cannot be complete apart from fellowship with Him.

(2) While love without sex may be frustrating, sex without love is folly. This is a lesson which we learn from Jacob. Surely those years with Rachel where sex was not possible or permissible were frustrating (cf. Genesis 29:21), but sex without love is just as bad. Jacob engaged in sex with his wife Leah, but there was no fulfillment in it. In fact, it degenerated to mere prostitution where Leah had to purchase his presence.

I do not think that this kind of bargaining with sex occurred only in the distant past. In our present day sex is often a commodity which is bargained for various considerations. That is mere prostitution. Sex without love is tragedy.

I feel that I must digress for a moment here on the relationship between sex and love, for this is not at all understood, even by Bible-believing Christians. I have read somewhere that “whoever” created men and women and sex must have been a very poor engineer. Men respond very quickly to physical stimuli; women do not. Men reach the peak of their sexual desire earlier in life; women, later. Secular thinking would suppose that this is poor design and that man and woman should precisely correspond in these and other areas. I disagree. These differences are by design. God made man and woman distinctly different so that the ultimate in physical pleasure can only be obtained by a deliberate and conscious love which makes sacrifices of itself for the pleasure of the other. Without sacrifice, love-making deteriorates into mere self-seeking gratification at the expense of the other partner. Love and sex must go together.

(3) Neither sex nor children can create love. Leah would be quick to tell us that she learned no amount of sex could ever earn the love of her husband. Even after six boys, she was still unloved. Love cannot be manufactured through sex.

This is a truth that I desperately desire my girls to learn. I see so many instances of girls who long to be loved giving their bodies in the vain search for love. Sex will produce children, but it will never produce love. I fear that many prostitutes were driven to their profession by the feeling that they were unloved. All they had to give, they supposed, was their body.

I have seen many marriages where the couple had very serious marital problems, and they decided to have children in order to hold the marriage together. This does not work either, for producing children does not produce love. Children are not creators of love but its consumer.

(4) He, or she, who places sex on an extremely high level of priority becomes its slave. I may be wrong, but Jacob’s love for Rachel seems to be largely based upon her physical attractiveness. Jacob appears to have been guided more by his hormones than anything else.

Our society informs men and boys that their masculinity is largely indicated by the number of conquests they can make among women. The more they make, the more of a man they are. Jacob did rather well by these standards. He circulated among his four wives frequently enough to produce a growing family, but look at what happened to him in the process. He was not the master of his harem, but he was mastered by his harem. He was pushed from bed to bed by his wives. He was purchased for the night. The passivity of Jacob in these verses is an indictment of his lack of leadership. He was a slave of sex and marriage, not its sovereign.

(5) Marriage cannot run for long on the fuel of romantic love. I believe that the love of Jacob for Rachel was primarily romantic. Romantic love is not necessarily wrong, for most couples who come to me for counseling and marriage have this same kind of love. I would be very uneasy if they did not. But in our premarriage counseling program we begin to prepare the couple for the stage of “disillusionment,” or the time that is commonly called “when the honeymoon is over.” In the humdrum and pressures of married life, romantic love is not sufficient to carry the relationship along for long. The woman whom we used to see after she had spent hours of preparation for being with us and who looked “fit to kill” is now the woman who has been up all night with a sick child. She comes to the table in a bathrobe and curlers and looks like she has been killed. Romance can quickly come and go.

Jacob does not seem to have worked at deepening and broadening his love. Instead it would appear that his love was largely on the romantic plane. No wonder Rachel should look with jealous eyes at Leah. No wonder she seemed so threatened and desperate. She felt unloved, just as Leah did. Love needs to be meticulously maintained and vigorously strengthened. Jacob must have failed here. May God enable us not to fail in our love, sex, and marriage as Jacob did.

244 “. . . it becomes apparent that in the history of the births, the intention to arrange them according to the mothers prevails over the chronological order, so that it by no means follows, that because the passage, ‘when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children,’ occurs after Leah is said to have had four sons, therefore it was not till after the birth of Leah’s fourth child that Rachel became aware of her own barrenness. There is nothing on the part of the grammar to prevent our arranging the course of events thus.” C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I. p. 291.

245 “It is impossible also to avoid noticing what seems to be a declension in Leah’s spiritual life from the time of the birth of her fifth son (xxx. 17-21). In connection with the first four the Lord’s hand was very definitely perceived, but now there is no longer any reference to the Covenant Name Jehovah, and the expressions indicate what is almost only purely personal and even selfish as two sons and a daughter are born to her.” W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), p. 277.

246 The “mighty wrestlings” of Rachel in verse 8 are literally the “wrestlings of God” (margin, NASV). It is significant, however, to note that the word used for Jacob’s wrestling with the angel in 32:24 is not the same as that found here.

247 “. . . the yellow berries of the mandrake about of the size of a nutmeg. The Hebrew knows them as duda’im, which according to its root signifies ‘love apples.’ The ancients and perhaps, the early Hebrews, too, regarded this fruit as an aphrodisiac and as promoting fertility.” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), II, p. 811.

248 Some have suggested that the rendering “dwell,” such as that of the NASV, might better be translated “marriage gift”:

“Two Hebrew roots, z-b-d and z-b-l are played upon in the two halves of this verse, and it now appears that they are linked by meaning as well as sound, in the light of the Akkadian zubullu, ‘bridegroom’s gift.’” Derek Kidner, Genesis (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 162.

“The translation of ‘marriage gift’ is taken because z-b-l has this meaning in Akkadian, and Padan-Aram being in the area of influence, is to be preferred to the meaning of ‘dwell’ from Ugaritic texts. What greater mark of the husband’s affection is there than to be presented with a gift from him!” Harold Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 234.

249 Cf. Derek Kidner, Genesis, p. 162.
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32. Jacob Gets Laban’s Goat (Genesis 30:25-31:16)


A good many years ago while I was a student in college, I did something which surprised my friends, and years later, continues to surprise me. My two roommates and I lived in the upper stories of an old house close to the college campus. Living on the lower level were an older man and his wife, serving somewhat as house parents. One day the older gentleman came upstairs and asked two of us to help him load a piece of furniture into a rented trailer. All told, it must have taken five minutes for us to carry that item from the third floor to the trailer.

When we had finished, he expressed his sincere thanks and held out a crisp new ten dollar bill. Of course he never dreamed that we would accept it. Naturally, none of my roommates did. I took the money as if it were manna from heaven, expressing my sincere thanks to this man, who stood with his mouth gaping. It never occurred to me that this money was anything but God’s provision for a hungry student.

I can only imagine what must have taken place when that poor man attempted to explain to his wife how he managed to give away that ten dollar bill. The lesson which I suspect his wife brought home to him was probably this: Don’t ever try to out-con a con. Those most susceptible to being conned out of their money are those who have at least a fair portion of the con artist in themselves.

The events of our portion of Scripture seem to depict two cons, each trying to out-con the other. In the grace and providence of God it will be Jacob who comes out the winner, but for reasons completely different from those which he expected. Many of us, like Jacob, have a tendency to give God the credit for prospering our sinful efforts to get ahead. It was in spite of Jacob’s conniving that he left Laban as a wealthy man. It was neither his spirituality nor his shrewdness which got him ahead in life.

Laban’s New Deal

Now it came about when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away, that I may go to my own place and to my own country. Give me my wives and my children for whom I have served you, and let me depart; for you yourself know my service which I have rendered you.” But Laban said to him, “If now it pleases you, stay with me; I have divined that the LORD has blessed me on your account.” And he continued, “Name me your wages, and I will give it.” But he said to him, “You yourself know how I have served you and how your cattle have fared with me. For you had little before I came, and it has increased to a multitude; and the LORD has blessed you wherever I turned. But now, when shall I provide for my own household also?” So he said, “What shall I give you?” And Jacob said, “You shall not give me anything. If you will do this one thing for me, I will again pasture and keep your flock: Let me pass through your entire flock today, removing from there every speckled and spotted sheep, and every black one among the lambs, and the spotted and speckled among the goats; and such shall be my wages. So my honesty will answer for me later, when you come concerning my wages. Every one that is not speckled and spotted among the goats and black among the lambs, if found with me, will be considered stolen.” And Laban said, “Good, let it be according to your word.” So he removed on that day the striped and spotted male goats and all the speckled and spotted female goats, every one with white in it, and all the black ones among the sheep, and gave them into the care of his sons. And he put a distance of three days’ journey between himself and Jacob, and Jacob fed the rest of Laban’s flocks (Genesis 30:25-36).

The fourteen years of service for Leah and Rachel must have been fulfilled shortly after the birth of Joseph. Just as Jacob reminded Laban that it was time to take his wife (29:21), so he must seek his release so that he might return to his homeland and family. Several factors would have contributed to Jacob’s desire to leave. First, his feelings toward Laban might not have been very positive at this point. He had been deceived, and his return had already been delayed seven years longer than he had expected. There certainly would have been a desire to return to his family. While we do not know if Rebekah was still alive, at least Isaac was. And, finally, God had revealed to him that he would someday return to the promised land where he would be blessed (28:10-22).

Having fulfilled his obligation to Laban, Jacob was free to go, but Laban was reluctant to see this happen. He had come to realize250 that his prosperity was the result of Jacob’s presence (verse 27). If Jacob were to stay, Laban reasoned, it would be on the basis of the profit motive. All of Jacob’s labor over those fourteen years had been in lieu of a dowry. He had nothing to show for his labor except for his wives and family. It was now time to re-negotiate Jacob’s contract, and Laban asked him to name his terms.

Jacob was in no hurry to do this. He first strengthened his position by underscoring in Laban’s mind the value he would be to him, just as it had been evident in the past (verses 29-30). Jacob now had a family to provide for, and thus his wages must be adequate to meet their needs. Jacob must think of the future. Laban’s offer, he suggests, will have to be a good one.

Now that Laban is prepared to accept a hard bargain, Jacob names his terms. And frankly, Laban must have breathed a sigh of relief, for the request was one that was easy to accept. Normally goats in that land were black or dark brown, seldom white or spotted with white. On the other hand, the sheep were nearly always white, infrequently black or spotted.251 Jacob offered to continue working as a tender of the flocks if he were but to receive the rarer of the offspring.

Jacob would examine the flocks that day, removing all the speckled and spotted animals, and these would be set aside as Laban’s property. These animals would be taken three days’ distance and kept by Laban’s sons. Only those newly born spotted or striped would become Jacob’s property. At some later time the herd would be examined, and the spotted or striped animals would go to Jacob, while the rest would be Laban’s. Removing the spotted and striped which were in the flock benefited Laban in two ways. First, it left these animals to him, not Jacob. Also, it lessened the chances of other spotted or striped animals being conceived, since these would not be mating with the flock.

It was too good to be true, Laban must have thought. How could he possibly lose? However, it was an open-ended agreement, which encouraged Jacob to attempt to manipulate the outcome and also left God free to overrule the normal course of nature in order to bless Jacob. The agreement was solidified, and the flocks were divided, with Jacob tending the unspotted, unspeckled, and unstriped animals of Laban.

Jacob’s Wheeling and Dealing

Jacob and Laban must both have departed while chuckling to themselves. Both thought the agreement was one that they could manipulate to their own advantage and at the expense of the other. Rather than conscientiously tending the flocks of Laban while looking to God for the increase, Jacob decided that this was something he could handle best by resorting to his schemes and devices. He employed three techniques which appeared to result in great success:

Then Jacob took fresh rods of poplar and almond and plane trees, and peeled white stripes in them, exposing the white which was in the rods. And he set the rods which he had peeled in front of the flocks in the gutters, even in the watering troughs, where the flocks came to drink; and they mated when they came to drink. So the flocks mated by the rods, and the flocks brought forth striped, speckled, and spotted. And Jacob separated the lambs, and made the flocks face toward the striped and all the black in the flock of Laban; and he put his own herds apart, and did not put them with Laban’s flock. Moreover, it came about whenever the stronger of the flock were mating, that Jacob would place the rods in the sight of the flock in the gutters, so that they might mate by the rods, but when the flock was feeble, he did not put them in; so the feebler were Laban’s and the stronger Jacob’s. So the man became exceedingly prosperous, and had large flocks and female and male servants and camels and donkeys (Genesis 30:37-43).

The first method Jacob used (verses 37-39) was peeled poles, which were supposed to have some kind of prenatal influence on the flocks. Jacob supposed that if the flocks had a visual impression of stripes while they were mating and conceiving, the offspring would assume this same form. So all about the trenches, which served as watering troughs, Jacob placed these peeled poles; and every appearance would incline him to believe that his scheme was working, for the resulting offspring were striped, speckled, or spotted (verse 39).

The second phase of Jacob’s plan to predispose the outcome of his labors was to segregate the flocks. The striped, speckled, and spotted offspring (which belonged to Jacob) were put off by themselves. The rest of the flock was faced toward those animals which were either striped or all black (verse 40). While the peeled poles were artificial, the striped animals were the “real McCoy.” Surely by seeing these animals, the rest of the flock would get the idea.

The third phase was a stroke of genius (verses 41-42). It was a kind of selective breeding. We are told that lambing took place twice during the year, once in the fall and once in the spring.252 Those born in the fall were thought to be hardier, since they must endure the harsh winter. Jacob placed his peeled poles only in front of the superior animals and not before the weaker. In Jacob’s mind the result was that the strong animals went to him, while the weak went to Laban (verse 42).

From everything that has been said, we would naturally conclude that the great prosperity of Jacob (verse 43) was due to his shrewd techniques for manipulating the outcome of the mating of the flocks. So it would seem. So it seemed to Jacob. There is only one problem: it didn’t work because it couldn’t work. From a spiritual perspective, it did not work because God does not bless carnal effort. From a physical point of view all of Jacob’s schemes were of no avail because they operated on one assumption, and that assumption was scientifically erroneous. Each of the three techniques Jacob employed was predicated on the belief that visual impressions at the time of conception affected the outcome at birth. In the first and third techniques it was the peeled poles which were thought to produce striped offspring. No one believes that this is true today, and no farmer uses this technique to upgrade his cattle. The second device of Jacob was based on the same premise, but it employed the black and striped of the flock to create the visual impressions.

Only later will we be told the real reason for Jacob’s prosperity. But mark this well—Jacob did not prosper because he pulled one over on Laban. Jacob’s success was not the product of his schemes.

Laban’s Hard Feelings

Just as Jacob’s deception of his father had adverse side effects (27:30ff.), so Jacob’s newly obtained prosperity produced its problems:

Now Jacob heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, “Jacob has taken away all that was our father’s and from what belonged to our father he has made all this wealth.” And Jacob saw the attitude of Laban, and behold, it was not friendly toward his as formerly (Genesis 31:1-2).

Two significant changes have occurred since Jacob first arrived at Paddan-aram, and the intersection of these precipitated a family crisis. First, Jacob, who arrived penniless (cf. 32:10), had now become prosperous, and this at the expense of Laban. Secondly, when Jacob first arrived there was no mention of Laban having any sons, but now he has sons of his own.

In addition to these hard facts we must consider one more factor which we have learned from archaeology. A man who did not have sons of his own could adopt a near relative, who would then become his son. At times this “son” would be given a daughter in marriage by his new “father.” If the father later had sons of his own, the inheritance would have to be divided among these heirs in some fashion. The son who had the rights of the firstborn and, therefore, headship over the family, would in that culture, be given the household gods, which would signify his headship.253

From these facts we can read somewhat between the lines of the story and surmise with some degree of confidence the cause of the change in attitude toward Jacob and his family. Initially Laban would have looked on Jacob as his son, his heir; but when sons of his own came, this was no longer needed. In fact, Jacob was now a competitor for the family inheritance. When Jacob prospered at Laban’s expense, it is easy to understand why Laban’s sons looked on him with disfavor, for all their inheritance was fleeing before their very eyes. Thus, the change in attitude on the part of Laban and his sons brought about a change of plans for Jacob. Not only did circumstances seem to dictate this change, but God revealed to Jacob that it was time to return to his homeland:

Then the LORD said to Jacob, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.” So Jacob sent and called Rachel and Leah to his flock in the field, and said to them, “I see your father’s attitude, that it is not friendly toward me as formerly, but the God of my father has been with me. And you know that I have served your father with all my strength. Yet your father has cheated me and changed my wages ten times; however, God did not allow him to hurt me. If he spoke thus, ‘The speckled shall be your wages, then all the flock brought forth speckled; and if he spoke thus, ‘The striped shall be your wages,’ then all the flock brought forth striped. Thus God has taken away your father’s livestock and given them to me. And it came about at the time when the flock were mating that I lifted up my eyes and saw in a dream, and behold, the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled and mottled. Then the angel of God said to me in the dream, ‘Jacob,’ and I said, ‘Here I am.’ And he said, ‘Lift up, now, your eyes and see that all the male goats which are mating are striped, speckled, and mottled; for I have seen all that Laban has been doing to you. I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar, where you made a vow to Me; now arise, leave this land, and return to the land of your birth.’” And Rachel and Leah answered and said to him, “Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not reckoned by him as foreigners? For he has sold us, and has also entirely consumed our purchase price. Surely all the wealth which God has taken away from our father belongs to us and our children; now then, do whatever God has said to you” (Genesis 31:3-16).

The last recorded revelation that Jacob had received was twenty years previous while he was still in the land of promise (28:10ff.). Now Jacob receives a divine directive which is particularly related to his return to the land. The impression is given that Jacob received no other revelation during those twenty years. Jacob’s actions would seem to confirm this conclusion, for little was said of God and His will until this time.

What circumstances suggested Jacob do, God instructed Jacob to do. He was to return to his homeland and to his relatives. Jacob did not worry about convincing his father-in-law (cf. verses 17ff.), but he did find it necessary to have the support of his wives. They must now choose between their father and their husband. In order to have a private conversation, Jacob called his wives to him in the field.

A Dirty Deal

Jacob’s first line of defense was to the effect that their father had given him a dirty deal (verses 5-9). Things were not as they used to be. For some unknown reason Laban’s attitude had strangely changed toward Jacob. While not favored by Laban, God has been on Jacob’s side. I would assume that the inference is that this could be seen by his prosperity.

In Jacob’s defense he puts himself in a very favorable light. He is the knight in shining armor, while Laban is the real villain. Jacob has worked hard (verse 6), but Laban has been the cheater (verse 7). Continually Laban changed the terms of their agreement (verse 8). The evidence of Jacob’s integrity is that God had vindicated him by giving him the flocks of Laban. That proved his innocence.

A Divine Directive

Besides this, God had spoken to Jacob confirming His blessing and directing him to return to the land of promise (verses 10-13). Jacob then reported the content of the dream he recently had,254 which further confirmed the righteousness of his actions and the rightness of his return to his homeland.

All that Jacob saw in this dream was a divine directive to return home. The vision of the striped, speckled, and mottled goats seemed to justify all that he had done to manipulate the mating and offspring of the flocks. This same God, Who gave him the upper hand over Laban, had also revealed Himself at Bethel (verse 13) and was instructing Jacob to return.

At least Jacob was able to convince his wives that it was right to leave Laban. They recognized that they no longer were in their father’s favor. He favored his sons and considered Jacob and his wives only a liability. Laban sold these daughters to Jacob and then spent the proceeds on himself. There was no love lost between these women and their father. They would not find it hard to leave Laban.

While what Jacob understood was true in part, he did not see nearly enough in this vision. God had not commended him for his attempts to manipulate matters against Laban to his own advantage. In fact, the prosperity which he experienced had nothing to do with his fervent efforts. All of his poles and peeling and segregating were of no profit whatever. A careful look at the words describing the dream will make this clear. Notice how God drew Jacob’s attention to the fact that the males that were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled (verse 10, 12).

Previously we asserted that all of Jacob’s efforts were based upon a faulty premise—that a visual impression during conception would influence the animal born. In the vision which Jacob had from God there were no peeled poles, no segregated flocks, but only male goats mating that were striped, speckled, and mottled. Now what lesson was God getting across to Jacob, or at least to us?

What determined the offspring of the flocks was not the circumstances (visual impressions) at conception but the characteristics of the male that mated with the female goats. Jacob’s attention was drawn to the fact that all the male goats which were mating were striped, speckled, and mottled. To put it another way, only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating, none of the rest.

Now this we know to be a very significant factor in determining the characteristics of the offspring. “Like father, like son,” we say. While Jacob operated upon an entirely false premise, God was working on a premise that is scientifically proven. How was it that only the striped, speckled, and mottled males were mating? Simple. God appointed it to be so in order that Laban’s wealth would be passed on to Jacob.

Think of it. All of Jacob’s efforts were of no benefit. All that time peeling poles and separating flocks and striving to outdo Laban was all for naught. What seemed at the moment to be the work of Jacob’s hands and the outcome of his schemes was nothing of the sort. It was the hand of God in spite of his scheming, not because of it.


The parallels between Jacob’s sojourn in Paddan-aram and Israel’s bondage in Egypt must have been evident to the nation as they first read this account from the pen of Moses. Jacob’s sin necessitated this departure just as Joseph’s journey was the result of many sins. Jacob went to Paddan-aram a poor man, but he left with a large family and great wealth. Joseph was sent to Egypt a virtual slave; but when the nation emerged at the exodus, they were many, and they had considerable wealth. Just as Laban was judged of God by his wealth being given to Jacob, so Egypt was judged by the wealth that was taken out at the exodus.

While these similarities are rather striking, there remains yet one further parallel which would be very instructive to the nation Israel. Jacob’s wealth did not come through his scheming but in spite of it. Jacob was not blessed of God because of his godliness but due to God’s grace. So also, the Israelites were to understand that their blessings were a gift from God, apart from the sin-stained works of their own hands. God deals with His people in grace.

So far as I can tell, Jacob never fully grasped the folly of his fervent efforts to outwit his uncle Laban. He never fully perceived the sinfulness of his motives and methods. To him the end justified the means. He believed that the one who prospered was blessed of God. Prosperity, to Jacob, proved piety. It was Moses who, in recording this account, allowed us to see more deeply into the issues involved. We must conclude that success cannot be equated with spirituality.

Religion is as distinct from Christianity as Jacob’s pole-peeling was from God’s sovereign grace in the life of Jacob. Countless men and women are trying to work their way into God’s heaven by their own devices. Some of these would include church membership, baptism, confirmation, communion, church leadership, charity, and so on. Now all of these activities may have great value to the one who is already a Christian, but they are useless to the one who is trying to win God’s approval and blessing by doing them. The appearance of benefit may be there but not the reality of it. People may think we are Christians. They may commend our devotion to duty. But self-effort is mere pole-peeling so far as God is concerned.

The only way to enter God’s heaven is to recognize that we are undeserving of it. We must come to distrust anything we are or do to merit the favor and blessing of God. The work of salvation is God’s sovereign work. It has been accomplished by His Son, Jesus Christ. He bore the penalty for our sins. He provided the righteousness which God requires. Salvation comes when we trust in nothing more and nothing less than the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for our eternal blessings.

I wonder how many times genuine Christians foolishly conclude that the success which we experience is proof of God’s blessing and approval of our carnal and unspiritual methods. Do we, like Jacob, suppose that any method that appears to work must be acceptable to God? As I look about me and as I observe many of the techniques that are commonly accepted by evangelicals today, I must admit that it appears that results are more important to us than righteousness. While we may be successful in convincing ourselves and perhaps others, God knows our hearts, and He will eventually make us stand and give account of our deeds. As someone has rightly pointed out, we are not commanded to be victorious, only obedient. We are not commanded to be fruitful, only to abide (John 15:1-8).

Perhaps we may try to excuse our deceitfulness by insisting that we live in a “crooked and perverse generation” (Philippians 2:15). We have come to believe that the only way to survive in such a society is to out-con the cons. Jacob may well have thus satisfied his conscience, reminding himself of the fact that Laban could not be dealt with on a straightforward basis. But this is not what the apostle Paul taught:

Do all things without grumbling or disputing; that you may prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, … (Philippians 2:14-16).

Finally, many of us, like Jacob, fail to “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) in our work lives. We enter into an agreement with our employer but then conclude that he is not so interested in our future as we are. We begin to look out for our own interests at the expense of our boss. We begin to build our own little empires just as Jacob set his flock apart from Laban’s. We begin to spend an enormous portion of our time trying to figure out how we can get more of what belongs to the company. Rather than working diligently and leaving our well-being in God’s hands, we take matters into our own hands. While we may, like Jacob, stay within the letter of the law, we get ahead at the expense of another. Such conduct is not to the glory of God. Such does not “seek first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33). May God enable us to trust in Him and in His grace rather than in our schemes and in the work of our hands.

250 It is possible that Laban learned this through the pagan process of divination, as is suggested by the term employed. This is not mandatory, however, and thus scholars are divided as to which possibility is most likely. One way or the other, Laban learned that God’s hand was upon Jacob. It seems hard to believe that Laban should have had to resort to divination to determine this. If it were divination, surely Jacob’s testimony was gravely deficient.

251 C. F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), I, p. 292.

252 Ibid., p. 294.

253 “The adoption tablet of Nashwi son of Arshenni. He adopted Wullu son of Puhishenni. As long as Nashwi lives, Wullu shall give (him) food and clothing. When Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be the heir. Should Nashwi beget a son, (the latter) shall divide equally with Wullu but (only) Nashwi’s son shall take Nashwi’s gods. But if there be no son of Nashwi’s, then Wullu shall take Nashwi’s gods. And (Nashwi) has given his daughter Nahuya as wife to Wullu. And if Wullu takes another wife, he forfeits Nashwi’s land and buildings. Whoever breaks the contract shall pay one mina of silver (and) one mina of gold.”

After citing this translation of tablet G51 from a Nuzu tablet, Vos goes on to suggest this interpretation of what took place in the Jacob-Laban contest:

“The interpretation would then run something like this. Laban adopted Jacob (at least he made him a member of his household and made him heir, sealing the transaction by giving Jacob a daughter to be his wife. As long as Laban lived, Jacob had the responsibility of caring for him. When Laben died Jacob would inherit Laban’s estate in full if Laban failed to have any sons. If Laban had natural sons, each would receive an equal share of the property, and one of them would receive the household gods, which signified headship of the family.” Howard F. Vos, Genesis and Archaeology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1963), p. 99. Cf. also Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 231.

254 Some suggest that this dream might have occurred earlier, but that is difficult to accept. Cf. Keil and Delitzsch, I, pp. 295-96.