Day 28: Yes, you did laugh

Read Genesis 18:1-15

God comes to visit Abraham and Sarah in a physical body – three, actually, and yes, it’s confusing. Somehow Abraham knows these men are God, but we aren’t told how.

He gets a meal ready.

And God speaks: “next year, … Sarah your wife will have a son.”

Again? God has told Abraham this so often it’s almost boring.

But this time he uses an audible, human voice. This time he makes sure Sarah can hear.

Sarah laughs out loud. It’s such a crazy idea – her having a child.

Sure, it’s only what she’d wanted all her life. She’d known about the promise – waited for it, helplessly, year after year. Finally, she’d given Hagar to Abraham. It was all so different from what she had hoped – such a hard disappointment.

God’s promise was not for her after all.

And now here is God saying ‘next year’.

Yeah right.

“Why did Sarah laugh?”

Why is God so interested in her? Why can’t he leave her alone?

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Well, that’s the question isn’t it?

Yes, honestly, Sarah does think some things are too hard for him – like her and Abraham having a child now. But she can’t say that to God.

“I did not laugh.”

“Yes, you did laugh.” God won’t let her hide behind a lie. He’s not like us. Our socially acceptable ways of relating don’t work with him because he has a relentless, pursuing, love.

We know he’s already forgiven Sarah because of the name he plans to give the child: ‘Isaac’, which means laughter – as if he’s inviting Sarah and Abraham to laugh with him over the craziness of it all.

But still he confronts her.

It must feel like a mean joke. Here’s God, mad at her for laughing because he says she will have a child. It’s completely unfair. What does he want? Is he trying to raise her hopes again? Why does he toy with her?

He’s not toying. He’s confronting the dragon who is with her whispering lies about what God is like and what he can and can’t do – and what he will and won’t do.

Sarah doesn’t know it but God is rescuing her again.

He means to dance with her.

Day 30: Flee for your lives!

Before you read: The angels (or God) go to Sodom where Lot invites them to his home and feeds them. Then, all the men of the city surround the house and demand that Lot send his guests out so they can have sex with them. (Yup, really.)

Read Genesis 19:6-29

This is, in my opinion, one of the darkest stories in the whole bible.

The men of the city want to gang-rape angels.

Blind to all that is good, they probably don’t know the men are angels, but that’s only another charge against them. These are men who enjoy the suffering of others. In fact, they seem to crave it. They are driven by a hunger to get physical pleasure by hurting others.

And they are pounding at Lot’s door.

Lot calls them his ‘brothers’ but confronts their wickedness. With his next words, however, we see that he’s lived too long here.

He offers the men his virgin daughters, suggesting that it would be less wicked to abuse them than the guests.

I shudder.

God acts.

I like God’s way better.

He has seen enough. The angels, like action heroes, hit the men with blindness and urge Lot and his family to leave – but they are stupidly slow. Finally, the angels physically drag the family out of town.

And fire falls from the sky.

Can you even imagine?

Far off stands Abraham, looking out over the smoking plain. “God … remembered Abraham and … brought Lot out…”

I don’t like Lot, and I don’t see why God saved him. But God tells us he did it because of Abraham, who pleaded for the righteous people. He’s doing what he promised: making Abraham to be a blessing.

Lot was tainted by sin and too attached to what God hated; but God saved him because of Abraham.

God does that sometimes: saves someone because of someone else.

When I look at my own life I realize what a good thing that is.

Day 29: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

Read Genesis 18:16-33

Wow. What happened here?

Did Abraham question the goodness of God? Did he challenge God – to his face?

Did he actually make God change his plans?

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (v17). It’s all very deliberate on God’s part. He chooses to let Abraham in on his plans. This is a new thing in the story. It’s almost as though God is asking for Abraham’s input.

Abraham doesn’t like the plan. He can’t accept that God would destroy innocent people along with the guilty. Isn’t it nice to hear a character in the story ask the author the very same questions we want to ask? And what does God do with such a bold question?

He agrees.

You’re right, he says in my words, for the sake of a few I won’t destroy the many. Then he patiently lets Abraham press deeper and deeper, bringing the number all the way down to ten.

It seems as though Abraham has guided God to a better plan.

But I’m not sure.

Read verse 19 carefully. God has a plan for Abraham, too: to raise children to be righteous and just. In fact, the promise depends on it. God plans for Abraham to become the father of a great nation – which, when you think about it, is a little bit like God himself. Like God, Abraham will need to guide, teach, and instruct his many children, and I wonder if this is why God shares his plans with him.

God is mentoring Abraham.

He is inviting Abraham to interact with him, to question him and get to know him better: his goodness, his patience, and his response to evil.

He’s also teaching Abraham about judgement and mercy, about how they need to work together. What parent doesn’t need this lesson? And so Abraham becomes more like God and better equipped to judge his own children.

Did Abraham change God’s plans? I don’t think so. I think God changed Abraham. He drew him deeper into relationship with himself, and he taught him to judge well.

Of course, to Abraham it may have felt that he changed God’s plans, and God let him feel that way.

But I think God planned all along to spare the town for the sake of ten; and he let his plans be judged and questioned – for the sake of one.

Day 27: Her name will be Sarah

Read Genesis 17:15-27

It’s a striking thing about Abraham how unflinchingly he obeys God: “on that very day…” I can just imagine his hundreds of people bustling about their everyday busyness when Abraham says, “Stop!” and announces that all the men are going to have an operation.

Just like that.

It’s messy and bloody. It’ll be days before returning to work as usual, but God said do it so Abraham does it: that day.

“As for Sarai, your wife…”

What God tells Abraham about Sarai is harder to accept than circumcision. In fact, when he says she’ll have a son, Abraham actually has to bow down to keep from laughing in God’s face. It seems as if Abraham has assumed that Ishmael was the promised child. Who else could it be? Abraham is nearly a hundred years old.

So, when God starts talking about Sarah, Abraham really can’t grasp it. Sarah? Sarah and Abraham – have a baby? It’s preposterous – downright laughable. They’re simply too old.

I suspect Abraham has had niggling doubts about Ishmael all along. Too much about him doesn’t quite fit with the promises. Still, Abraham loves him. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

It is the cry of his heart, and it expresses what he knows is true: Ishmael doesn’t.

God confirms it, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will give you a son.” Once again he’s bringing Abraham back to his marriage. Abraham may dismiss Sarah, but God won’t. He rescued her from Pharaoh and now, tenderly, he changes her name, as a sort of intimate promise that he will fulfill the covenant through her – and no one else.

I love his answer to Abraham’s plea for Ishmael, “I will surely bless him.” He honors the father’s heart. “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac.”

Isaac?

Who’s that?

He is Abraham’s and Sarah’s son, who doesn’t exist yet – who, by all human standards can never exist. But God already knows him, and has named him. In fact, he has named him ‘laughter’, which is so wonderful because it takes all the sting and bitterness out of Abraham’s disbelieving laughter.

In one year, God says, you will laugh with joy and wonder at the way I fulfill this covenant, which now causes you bleeding and pain.

It’s a promise.

Day 26: My covenant in your flesh

Read Genesis 17:1-14

Ishmael is now about 13 years old.

Had you already figured that out? Compare verses 16:6 and 17:1. It has been 23 years, and Abram is still a foreigner in Canaan. Once again God visits him and renews the promises, which seem to be getting bigger and better: “You will be the father of many nations”! “Kings will come from you”!

Now God adds another layer: a new covenant, in addition to the one about the land. This covenant has two parts: God’s part is to give Abram countless descendants and to always be their God; and Abram’s part is to make sure that the men are all circumcised.

This is an invitation.

God is making a kind of divine club, and the entrance requirement is circumcision. The people of this club are God’s people in a unique and special way. He plans to give them everything that he has promised to Abram.

The physical proof of belonging is an intimate thing. It’s not something other people will see, as if it were a special way of dressing, or shaving the head. God choses a sign that is private, but no less real.

It’s also painful; cutting off skin in a sensitive area of the body. Entrance to this club comes at a cost.

Those who are circumcised belong to God. He is doing a huge thing – creating a nation so He can use it to bless the whole world: “you will be a blessing …. all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” (12:2,3).

Yet, while doing this huge thing, God never loses sight of  Abram. Now, he renames him.

You may have read in the notes of your bible that ‘Abram’ means ‘exalted father’ which is a pretty fine name – but not fine enough for God. He changes it to ‘Abraham’, which means ‘father of nations’.

It’s a ridiculous name, really, because Abraham is ninety-nine years old and the father of one: Ishmael. It’s like calling a short man “Stretch”, or a bald man “Curly” – except that this is God, who wants Abraham to know that his name is El-Shaddai – “God Almighty” (17:1).

What he names a person matters because as he names them, so they become.

What do you wish he would name you?

Day 25: Hagar gave Abram a son

Read Genesis 16:1-15

Finally!

Finally, Abram has a son!

Imagine his joy.

It’s been ten years since God promised him children: ten long years. He was beginning to lose hope, but here in his arms is his very own baby boy – his son.

It’s all a bit different from what he expected. Somehow, he’d thought that God meant for Sarai to have the son herself, not through her servant; and that message about Ishmael being a “wild donkey of a man,” living in hostility with everyone – that doesn’t sound at all like being a “blessing to the whole world”.

Still.

Here is the boy.

I imagine Sarai meanwhile, wondering where it all went wrong. There stands Abram, proudly holding his son, and it’s all because of her. Legally, the child is hers. But this isn’t what she’d hoped for. It’s all so flat. And that horrible Hagar, gloating and beaming: Sarai could just spit on her.

It’s bad for Hagar, too. She stands off to the side, arms achingly empty, while Sarai and Abraham parade her son around. He’s her son, not Sarai’s, no matter what anyone thinks. Even God knows it. He spoke to her about him; told her his name would be Ishmael because of her, Hagar’s, suffering – because God sees her suffering.

Hagar remembers the man – was he an angel? Was he God? – who met her by the road. He talked as if he knew all about her. The God of Abram, everyone knows about Him – she still can’t imagine why he would bother with her. But he did. There is Ishmael. Every time she hears his name she remembers the promises God made about him.

I imagine her shaking her head in amazement. Promises to her? She’s a servant – a woman. Why would he bother? She doesn’t even matter to Abram, the father of her son. Why would she matter to God?

This is a strange God, who goes looking for a runaway slave.

As though he cares.

Day 24: How can I know?

Read Genesis 15:7-21

“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.”

Up until here God has made promises, but here – with animal carcasses cut in half – he is making a covenant (contract). In his wonderful kindness he is using a method that, though bizarre to us, would have made perfect sense to Abram because it’s how Abram would have made a contract with any other person.

The covenant is about land. God is ‘officially’ giving the land to Abram or, more specifically, to Abram’s descendants: his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on.

It’s astounding. Listen, “I have given this land to your descendants,” (NLT). The NIV doesn’t capture the idea of how God has already given the land, but it comes through in some other translations, and either way it’s astounding. God is giving the land to people not yet born.

He can do stuff like that.

But what I love most in all this is what it shows us about God’s heart. He’s already given the land, so there’s no real point to this elaborate covenant ceremony – except that Abram needs it.

Abram was able to believe God about the children but apparently, ‘I’m giving you this land’ stretches him too far. So, without whining or accusing, Abram simply asks, “How can I know?” It’s both an admission that he should know, and a confession that he doesn’t.

And God likes it.

God wants him to know because, to God, faith is what makes a person ‘right’. So he gives Abram the physical proof of the covenant. Then he does more: he gives him a vision of the future. He tells Abram what will happen to his descendants, how they will be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years, then set free and returned to this land, which he has given them.

He adds as a kind of afterthought: they can’t have the land now, because the people who live here don’t deserve to lose it yet.

He’s telling Abram the big story. It’s an invitation to Abram to see his own life in the context of the bigger thing that God is doing. But remembering that Abram is human and fearful, he gently adds, “You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.”

I think if I was Abram I’d pretty much shut-up after this. What can a human say when faced with the bigness and complexity of everything God is doing?

What a gift, to be shown the way that he is writing your life into a wonderful story.

Day 23: Abram believed the Lord

Read Genesis 15:1-6

This is the fourth time God has talked to Abram. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

I love the majesty of that. Read it again, slowly. Put your own name there instead of Abram’s. It might be a stretch for you, but humour me.

I don’t know why Abram was afraid, or why he needed protection, but imagine hearing God promise it to you like that. And ‘reward’ – does that catch your breath? The word excites me, like presents under a tree.

Now, for the very first time in Abram’s story, he talks back to God, and what does he say?

“Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”

He’s whining!

In response to the majestic, generous, offer of God’s personal protection and reward, and all the blessings already given, Abram basically says, ‘So what? You haven’t given me any children. What’s the good of all this wealth if it will only go to a servant?’

I think the dragon is hissing in Abram’s ear: ‘God isn’t doing what he said he would.’

But I love how God responds. He doesn’t get mad – at all, not one bit. He gently contradicts Abram and then calls him outside to stargaze. ‘Start counting Abram. That’s how many children you’ll have.’

“Abram believed the Lord.” He goes from whining to faith and God, who sees his heart, knows it.

“Abram believed” – can you feel the peace gently hushing all the noisy doubts that had begun to crowd into Abram’s soul? Can you see the light seeping into all the dark, questioning corners of his mind? He believes God.

And God credits it to him as righteousness. Another translation says, “The Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith,” (15:6 NLT).

Stop a minute.

This is very big.

Abram hasn’t done anything. He’s still standing outside looking up at the stars, but because of something going on inside of him God inserts this comment about righteousness.

Righteousness is a long word for ‘right’ as in, ‘what-God-meant-for-us-to-be’. The whole story so far has been about how we are ‘not right’, and what God has done about it; and here he suddenly says Abram is.

Just like that.

Abram is ‘right’ even though he lies, even though he whines, even though the craving is in him. God says he’s right because he believes God’s promise to him.

He believes what God says – more than what he sees and feels.

It’s called faith.

Day 22: Melchizedek, …a priest of God most high

Before you read: A king named Kedorlaomer unites with three other kings and attacks five other kingdoms including Sodom. They win, and carry off the prisoners. Abram’s nephew Lot was in Sodom and is taken prisoner. Abram is not part of any of these kingdoms.

Read Genesis 14:11-24

“Abram … called out the 318 trained men born in his household.”

Men aren’t born trained.

This is a glimpse into the life and practices of Abram. He is wealthy: with many, many servants. He makes sure his men are trained: well trained, apparently, because they are able to beat four kings and their armies – which five other kings together could not do.

Abram is a force to be reckoned with.

He swoops in like a conquering hero, rescues Lot and his neighbours, and then meets the mysterious Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is called the ‘King of Salem’ but there is no place named Salem in the Bible. Later, in Psalms, we’ll be told that Salem means Peace, and that God’s tent is there, but that’s the only other reference to it in the whole story (other than ones that mention Melchizedek and this event).

So this man’s kingship is mysterious; but what especially fascinates me is that he is a ‘priest of God most high’, and the first person in Abram’s story to know this God who keeps visiting Abram.

He calls God the “Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.” I imagine that when Abram hears these words, something in him responds, ‘Yes! That’s the God who’s made me the promises.’ How wonderful to finally meet someone else who knows this God. And just to be sure, listen to what Melchizedek says, “Blessed be Abram by God most high.”

There it is again, the promise of blessing, as if God just can’t say it enough.

Then Abram does a strange thing. He gives Melchizedek ten percent of all the plunder he’s just won. Why? What about this man inspires an act so almost like worship? In fact, it is a kind of worship: a tribute, a gift given to a conqueror – or a god.

In sharp contrast, Abram gives only disdain to the King of Sodom. Look at how he separates himself, “I will take nothing from you.” The King of Sodom had a lot to offer, but Abram has just been with Melchizedek and the promises of God are fresh in his mind, so he says no.

He is beginning to want only what God will give him.

Day 21: Go, walk through … the land

Read Genesis 13:1-18

I sometimes fantasize that I have won a new house. It is fully furnished exactly to my taste and I imagine walking through it the first time, with my husband and daughters. We go from room to room exploring and delighting in everything; telling ourselves over and over that it really is ours to enjoy.

Abram was a shepherd and to him land would have been what a house is to me. It represents home, safety, wealth, and abundance, and God is giving it to him. “All the land that you see I will give to you.”

This, even after Abram lied to Pharaoh and God had to rescue Sarai. Abram was selfish and cowardly, but God knew that – before he made the promises.

What God doesn’t say, doesn’t need to say, is ‘Oh by the way, the land isn’t empty.’

No. Canaanites live here. Remember when Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan? These are his descendants. Noah said that they would serve the descendants of his other son Shem.

Abram is a descendant of Shem.

Through everything that happens, God writes his story.

Strangely, God promises to give this excellent land to Abram while the Canaanites still live there; and he wants Abram to go explore it as though it is already his.

It’s hard for the characters in the story to see the big picture, but Abram does see God. Look back at 12:4-5 and notice how he obeys God; then look at 12:7-8 and see how he worships God. Do you remember God telling Cain that he must overcome sin? The great thing about Abram is that – sometimes – he does.

God promises him everything: children, wealth, fame, blessing and land. It would be impossible to overstate the greatness of these promises to a man like Abram. It’s as though God says, ‘I’ll give you everything you could possibly want.’

Of course, we already know that Abram doesn’t always overcome sin, but the great thing about God is he will work with someone like that. He knows all about the cravings and isn’t looking for a sin-free person.

He just wants one that still battles.

He wants a warrior.