48. Genesis 23, 25:1-10, 25:12-18; and I Chronicles 1:28-33

III. A. 3. continued

h) The Death of Sarah (Genesis 23)

Sarah was 91 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 17:17) and she died when she was 127 years old, when Isaac was about 36 years old, in the year 2023 b.c. It is curious that Isaac was not mentioned in the negotiations for the purchase of the cave of Machpelah, the burial site for his mother. At this point Abraham was living at his home base in Hebron, near his old ally, Mamre the Amorite, but Isaac was not living with him. Isaac, we are told in 24:62 and 25:11, frequented Beer-lahai-roi, where Hagar had first seen an angel many years before, and seemed to be living in the far southern part of the land, the Negev. He was most certainly not present at his mother’s burial. There was no disrespect in this: Sarah died before he could be reached, perhaps suddenly, and the necessity of burial could not be postponed for very long.

Even by this time, having lived in the land of Canaan for more than seventy years, Abraham did not own enough land to bury his wife, though God had promised it all to him. The cave Abraham wanted for the burial was in the field of Ephron, a Hittite. The Hittites were distantly related to the Philistines, not to the Amorites, whose local chieftain was Mamre, and Abraham did not have the close ties with the Hittites that he had with the Amorites. The purchase negotiations sound odd to modern ears, but it is the way bargaining goes in many countries even today. The significant thing is that Abraham did not even try to bargain. Ephron began by offering to give the cave to Abraham, pretending to revere his powerful position among them, knowing Abraham would not accept; and then he named a ridiculously high price.

Perhaps this is another example of Abraham’s lack of assertiveness, or perhaps his grief at the death of Sarah left him too depressed to go through the motions of business as usual. But it is possible that Abraham felt toward the Hittites as he had felt toward the king of Sodom. Perhaps he felt it would be a moral compromise to receive any benefit from them and he preferred to be cheated by the Hittite man than to appear to get a good deal from him.  He  would have looked like something of a sap. If he had been concerned about his own status or reputation, he would have sought to avoid the humiliation at all costs. He was powerful enough that he could have just taken the field by force, but Ephron risked insulting this powerful man because Abraham had a reputation for not being agressive. People cheat anyone who doesn’t fight back. Abraham knew he was being cheated, he was being insulted, but he didn’t care. It seems to me that his behavior is that of a man who is concerned mainly about God’s reputation. He preferred to be dishonored before men in order to be certain that no one could take credit away from God for blessing him.

Abraham was thus the first (or second if we count Noah) in the long line of people who are willing to look like fools so as not to embarrass God. It is natural for children to want to make their parents proud. What do we care what the neighbors think if our parents are pleased? Unfortunately we too quickly grow out of that loyalty. But I do think that Abraham had begun to think of himself as God’s child. He didn’t say so, but he acted like it. Do we – the modern children of God who carry our spiritual childhood like a chip on our shoulder – do we care that the world not get the credit for any success or prosperity we might enjoy? Not many of us avoid the stupid contests and drawings and lotteries that could make us rich. Not many of us are willing to be cheated quietly by people we don’t like. Not many of us can resist charging what the market will bear, or can pass up taking the “steals” we are offered by desperate people.  We may be “children of Abraham” but sometimes it is hard to see the family resemblance. If we are to prosper, let it be plain to all that it comes from God and that we owe nothing to the system of this world. Let’s not rationalize our whole-hearted pursuit of wealth by saying that we can “give the glory to God”. It is the world that gets the credit for such things regardless of how loudly we say “praise the Lord”.

We may think of Canaan in the time of Abraham as being primitive, but there was some bureaucratic system that kept records of who owned what property. Even with no central government, property rights are important. The title to this field and cave were recorded and the records maintained over centuries. As unstable as the region was, as frequently as armies went through conquering the region for one super-king or another, there was enough stability to maintain property records and the rights of owners. When Joseph brought Jacob’s body from Egypt to be buried in that cave nearly two centuries later there was no disputing the ownership.

i) Keturah (Genesis 25:1-10 and I Chronicles 1:32, 33)

The last information we have that is specifically about Abraham is contained in 25:1-10. Abraham lived seventy-five years after Isaac was born, and thirty-seven years after Sarah died. There is no indication as to when Abraham took Keturah as a concubine. The heir of the Covenant was established as the son of Sarah according to God’s promise and there would be no threat posed by any new children of a concubine, especially after Isaac moved away.  Abraham could have felt free to take another wife, and perhaps he did as soon as Isaac was grown and was firmly in control of the inheritance.

Keturah had six sons, all of whom were sent away when they were old enough just as Ishmael had been. This would have been against custom and against the justice of the day, just as sending Ishmael had been. These sons were surely entitled to some inheritance, but it was denied to them and there was nothing they could do to demand their rights. Abraham clearly intended to protect the interests of Isaac, even to violating the ethics of the time. The land had no central government at the time, no unifying religion, no one to enforce any code of morality unless it was the most powerful man in the country, Abraham himself. In 25:6 when it says “the sons of his concubines”, probably the plural includes Hagar as well as Keturah; it seems unlikely that he had other wives and descendants that aren’t mentioned here.

These descendants appear to be mentioned in order to emphasize the fact that the Covenant belonged to Abraham/Sarah and therefore to Isaac and not to the others. However, as children of Abraham they were under God’s promise of blessing and His promise to be their God. Specifically the fourth son of Keturah and Abraham was Midian, whose descendants would have divided spiritual loyalties. One branch of the Midianite clan seems to have served as priests and representatives of God Most High around that whole region. Moses would encounter one such priest nearly five hundred years later. Another branch of the Midianites were hostile to Israel.

It is interesting how little God revealed to Abraham about his own shortcomings. We have noted this in previous sections, but God’s slowness in rebuking bad behavior is a noteworthy facet of His character. One reason is that there are so many flaws to point out. If it were His priority to correct all our faults, He would hardly have time for anything else. Another reason is that it does not do much good to point out flaws. Knowing a certain act is wrong does not seem to keep us from repeating it. Rather than simply shaming us repeatedly by our powerlessness to control sin, God chose to provide the cure for evil while shielding us from the full disclosure of it. He doesn’t care that we are never aware of exactly how much He has delivered us from; it is enough to Him that He did deliver us. There will be time later for us to realize how much we owe Him. Later perhaps He will give a more thorough revelation of our shortcomings, but not until we are ready for it and then only as much as is absolutely necessary.

One final remark about Abraham and his significance to us: the status of those who have never heard the gospel is sometimes a matter of speculation or debate, and sometimes it is a stumbling block to faith. Are the people who never had the chance to hear about Christ saved or lost or what? It is reassuring then to consider that many people who have never heard of Christ are in exactly the same position as Abraham. He was a man who had some knowledge of the traditions of the creation of the world, but who lived among pagans and was imbued with their culture. All he knew of God was that He had called him and spoken to him and bound Himself to him. Abraham had not heard of Jesus and had only the smallest hints of a coming Messiah. Who is to say that God does not similarly call people around the world to Himself even now who have never heard of Christ and perhaps never will? Who is to say how many people even now may be hearing God in their hearts though they do not realize the full import of what He is saying? Who is to say that there have not been many such mini-Abrahams through history, people who, while they have not received a Covenant of Revelation like Abraham did, nonetheless have received God’s grace? The New Testament says that salvation belongs to those who have the same faith as Abraham (Romans 4:11,12), and that might well include more people than we can imagine.

B.  The Second Generation of the Covenant

1. Ishmael (Genesis 25:12-18 and I Chronicles 1:28-31)

The focus of Scripture now moves to the second generation of the Covenant, to Isaac and to Ishmael. Since the Covenant would not continue through Ishmael, and little more would be said of his descendants or history, the Scripture concluded his story with his genealogy. God fulfilled His promise to Hagar by bringing twelve sons from Ishmael. These may or may not have been his personal sons, but the intent of the passage seems to be that they were. It even emphasizes that they are given in their birth-order. From these princes the present day Arabic peoples come. It is an honor to be descended from Abraham, and it is blessed in the sight of God. God, who never fails in His promises, has said that the children of Ishmael are under His blessing because of Abraham, as Israel is. His purpose is to bless everyone, all nations, through Abraham, but His blessings may come in different packages to different people. The peoples of Ishmael will be blessed through Abraham and the Messiah that comes from him, but in addition to this universal Abrahamic blessing, there is a special direct blessing to the children of Ishmael as Abraham’s physical descendants.

Ishmael lived one hundred and thirty seven years, so he died in 1936 b.c. Isaac would have been one hundred and twenty three years old at the time and Jacob and Esau would have been sixty three. Ishmael and his descendants “settled in defiance of all his relatives”, as it is to this day. The conflict in the Middle East is a family tradition four thousand years old; it cannot be easily solved, and it is particularly unsolvable as long as both sides of Abraham’s family misunderstand the Messiah.

One question that some Christians tend to pose at this point is “Was Ishmael saved?” Especially those of us who carry a New Testament framework with us when we read Genesis tend to think of saved/unsaved as the basic two categories of people in the world. How does Ishmael fit with regard to these categories? The short answer is that he doesn’t. There are problems with either answer. If we say that Ishmael was “saved”, then at what point is the hope and trust in a future Messiah evident in his life? He was excluded from the Covenant that would culminate in that Messiah and was physically excluded from his kinsmen who were gradually educated in that hope. The subsequent history of the conflict between the Jews and the Ishmaelites gives no encouragement to believe that the Ishmaelites looked to their Jewish kinsmen for their future deliverance. On the other hand, if we say that Ishmael was not saved, then how is he under the blessing of God, the blessing that God promised on his behalf to Abraham? How can we speak of anyone who is without salvation as being under God’s blessing?

We could just as well ask whether Abraham’s household alone in the entire world was saved. The answer is that God did not say what He was doing with the other people in the world and this suggests that saved/unsaved is the wrong dichotomy to use. However God did make it clear that there were other people in the world who knew Him truly, though to a limited extent. The qualification is hardly necessary – anyone who knows God knows Him only to a limited extent. The focus of God’s revelation is that He is making a revelation. The point is that Abraham received a revelation of God’s character and purposes that others didn’t, and that God chose to continue the process of special revelation through Abraham’s descendants and not to others.

The rejection of Ishmael’s descendants from the Covenant of Revelation meant that they would not be immediately in on the further revelation of God, just as the rest of us were not. We are in the habit of thinking that a relationship with God is all or nothing, but the Bible seems to describe a range of possible relationships with God. It is all more complicated than a simple yes or no, in or out, saved or unsaved. Nor has the Scripture made it clear up to this point in Genesis exactly what “salvation” might mean. At this point in the revelation, the dichotomies are between those who are receiving revelation and those who aren’t, and between those who received the oral tradition and those who didn’t. If anything, as far as salvation goes, the emphasis has been entirely on God’s favorable intentions toward us all. We must hold off on expecting a complete answer to such questions until we have read more of the Scripture.

There is one more point to be made. Muslims have made the charge that the text in Genesis has been altered to make Isaac the heir, that in fact it was Ishmael who was the heir and through whom the Covenant continued. While it is true that some ancient texts were altered, that even some modern texts have been altered, to suit the purposes of one group or another, in this case the charge is untenable. Ishmael was undeniably a legal heir of Abraham, but he was equally undeniably not the spiritual heir of Abraham. The Covenant clearly did not continue through Ishmael, even if you do not interpret the Covenant as being a Covenant of revelation. Ishmael was given his due in the genealogy that follows and the list of kings that came from him and then he disappeared from the lineage of revelation. Whatever blessings God bestowed on him and on his posterity, revelation of God’s nature was not one of them. On the contrary the revelation manifestly continued through Isaac to Moses and David and Solomon and the prophets all the way to the Messiah. None of Ishmael’s descendants were part of this lineage of revelation. They joined the rest of the human race and deteriorated into a religion of futility.

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