Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Genesis Notes: A Man of the Covenant

GENESIS 18 & 19
Abraham is very hospitable to the three strangers here as is Lot later on. Whenever a stranger comes to my door, I try to keep in mind that it might be an angelic encounter just like theirs. It helps temper a lot of the "temper" I might otherwise display! Life Application Study Bible tells about hospitality in Abraham's time.

Abraham and the Three Visitors by Marc Chagall

... In Abraham's day, a person's reputation was largely connected to his hospitality -- the sharing of home and food. Even strangers were to be treated as highly honored guests. Meeting another's need for food and shelter was and still is one of the most immediate and practical ways to obey God. It is also a time-honored relationship builder. Hebrews 13:2 suggests that we, like Abraham, might actually entertain angels. This thought should be on our minds the next time we have the opportunity to meet a stranger's needs.

There is a highly symbolic understanding to the three men's visit. I never noticed before all the little hints that help show what is really happening on a spiritual level.
Note: "This new appearance of God to Abraham is somewhat mysterious: the three men stand for God. When Abraham speaks to them, sometimes he addresses them in the singular (as if there were only one person there: cf. vs. 3), and sometimes in the plural (as if there were three: cf. v. 4). That is why some Fathers interpreted this appearance as an early announcement of the mystery of the Holy Trinity; others, following Jewish tradition (cf. Heb. 13:2) take these personages to be angels. The sacred text says that one of the three men (Yahweh, apparently) stays with Abraham (cf. v. 22), while the other two, who are referred to as angels, go to Sodom (cf. 19:1)." (Navarre Bible: Pentateuch; Princeton, NJ: Scepter Publishers, 1999; p. 103-104)

I remember hearing this story of Abraham "bargaining" with God for the righteous men's lives in Sodom. Never understood it very well, until now, that is. I love the idea that Abraham is concerned about God's character and that God uses bargaining to help Abraham understand Him better. Very Middle Eastern isn't it?
Interestingly, as Abraham considers what God has told him, his primary concern is about God's character. He does not want to believe that God would allow those who live righteously (and surely he is thinking of Lot and his family) to suffer the same fate as those who live wickedly. This kind of treatment of men by God would suggest that He is not just ("Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" vs. 25). Abraham seems to comprehend in a flash that if the Creator of the world is not just, men are in very serious trouble ("Far be it from Thee to do such a thing....Far be that from Thee!" vs. 25). Why? Because if the Creator is not just, then there is no difference between right and wrong. If God does not reward righteousness and punish wickedness, men can and will do whatever they want. The alternative to justice is chaos.

This protest from Abraham reveals him to be a man who believes that God is just and that He can be expected to deal justly with men. In effect, what he is saying is, "God, You are not really like that!" It is his confidence in God's true character that makes him bold to make his appeal.

To allow the presence of righteous people in a city to spare judgment of the wicked in that same city is an
example of how justice and mercy meet. What a powerful moment this is in redemption history! We should get down on our knees when we read it. It is from human lips that the outline of our salvation is first established in Scripture. Father Abraham, God's covenant-keeper, raises the possibility that righteousness can be so powerful that it spares judgment on those who deserve it. This is not a violation of justice. Rather, it is a statement of the superabundant merit of righteousness. Abraham acknowledges that the wicked deserve to be punished, but he opens the door to the possibility that the righteous can fill up what is lacking in the wicked, thereby saving them.

And God accepts it!

Abraham perhaps realizes that the number of righteous people in Sodom may be very small. He is probably thinking of Lot's family and maybe a few others. He carefully works the numbers down to see how merciful God is and how powerful righteousness is. He stops at ten. The reality is, of course, that ultimately it is the perfect righteousness of one Man, God's own Son, who saves the whole world! As St. Paul writes, "Then, as one man's [Adam] trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man's act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience many will be made righteous." (Rom. 5:18-19)

If Abraham is an example of someone who keeps a covenant with God, then we are supposed to follow his example. Kind of a sobering thought. He has shown us several lesssons:
  1. Covenant-keepers should occasionally expect to be visited by God in "disguise." Energetic hospitality is the proper response to these visits. Sometimes He may come to us "hidden" in a family member, a coworker, or a stranger in need. Abraham's respect for and self-donation on behalf of his three visitors show us the way to receive Him.
  2. Covenant-keepers can expect that sometimes God will ordain circumstances in our lives that are meant to be occasions for Him to reveal His nature to us. These circumstances will cause us to examine what we believe about God - Who He is and how He acts in the world. Covenant-keepers will defend God's character against accusations or doubts (even when they come from within), just as Abraham did.
  3. Covenant-keepers should see themselves as God's co-workers, just as God described Abraham as one through whom the whole earth will be blessed. We should be prepared to pray as intercessors for those who are in need of God's mercy. Abraham's prayer for Lot meant that already God was keeping His covenant promise to him of making him a "blessing" (19:29). Our prayers for others fulfill God's promise to us to make us a "royal priesthood." As St. Peter writes: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy." (1 Pet. 2:9-10)
  4. Covenant-keepers should be as bold and as humble as Abraham was before God.

All quotes from Life Application Study Bible. This series first ran in 2004 and 2005. I'm refreshing it as I go. For links to the whole study, go to the Genesis Index. For more about the resources used, go here.

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