Genesis 19-21, Psalm 7, Matthew 7
People of the Bible behaving badly and God’s response
Genesis 19 – 21
Sometimes while watching a movie it helps to say to yourself, “It’s only a movie. This is not real life.” It might be helpful to say the same thing to ourselves as we read through the lessons from Genesis today.
Chapter 19 is one of the most famous and also one of the most misread chapters of the Bible, which has left a scarring impact on the world. The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has been greatly misinterpreted for centuries.
Jews were commanded to offer hospitality to strangers. It was required of them by the Jewish Law. The Law, however, has not yet been given by God to Moses. Hospitality, however, was vital in the ancient Near East, where people put themselves as considerable risk to travel. They had to rely on the generosity and hospitality of strangers.
Lot therefore welcomed two strangers who came in the guise of angels to visit him. Knowing that it could be dangerous for them to spend the night in the open city, he urged them to spend the night in his house. The men of the city, however, surrounded his house and implored Lot to send his guests out to them so that they might sexually assault them.
This episode has linked the sin of “sodomy” with the city that carries its name and has centuries it has cast homosexuality as a sin. This remains a lively topic for theological debate. What is neglected, however, is the rest of the story. Lot implores the mob to leave his guests alone, but as recompense he offers his two daughters, who are virgins, to satisfy the sexual desires of the mob. What strong critics of homosexuality fail to note is that Lot is willing to let his own daughters be gang-raped by the group of thugs that appear at his doorstep. Conservative interpreters of the Bible almost never address this.
Fortunately, the men whom Lot has welcomed are no ordinary men. They are angels in disguise. When the unruly crowd threatens to assault Lot, the angels rescue him and strike the mob blind. Lot is then warned to flee from the city with his family, because God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
Despite Abraham’s plea bargaining with God in chapter 18 not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous men are found in the city, God destroys both cities. Apparently, both cities were inhabited almost completely by unrighteous people. Lot’s wife turns back to see the destruction of her home and her city and is transformed into a pillar of salt. The whole story seems to echo that there is a severe price to pay for disobeying God, but the rules at times appear odd and even whimsical.
The daughters of Lot quickly realize that their prospects for marriage are slim to none. Hence, they plot to get their father drunk so that he may unknowingly impregnate them. The purpose of this story is to show how the tribes of Moab and the Ammonites, both of which were bitter enemies of the Jews, were created. The author of the story is suggesting that Israel’s enemies were bastard offspring of an incestuous relationship.
Chapter 20 strongly echoes chapter 12. We find ourselves saying, “Haven’t I read this story before?” The only difference is that Abram is now Abraham and Sarai is now called Sarah, and the Lord has established a covenant with them and has promised that within the year Sarah will give birth to a child and that their descendants were outnumber the stars in the sky. Despite this promise and the transformation that God has brought about through changing their names and entering their lives, Abraham and Sarah continue to function in their old, familiar and deceitful ways.
Sarah is reportedly beyond the age of child-bearing and yet her beauty must remain. King Abimelech finds her attractive and takes her into his concubine, only to discover that she is already married. He is warned in a dream that God is about to kill him for taking another man’s wife, but pleads his innocence. Just as Pharaoh sent Abram and Sarai packing enriched with lots of animals as recompense for his unknowing mistake, King Abimelech enriches Abraham and Sarah in order to avoid being killed by God.
In chapter 21, we read about the birth of Isaac, who along with Abraham and Jacob, whom we shall read about later, are the three patriarchs of the Jewish people. This birth is very significant for from it will come the lineage of the Jewish people and Jesus, the Messiah. Now it is Sarah’s turn to behave badly. Fearing that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, might inherit Abraham’s wealth, Sarah commands Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son into the wilderness. It is a certain death sentence, if carried out.
Reluctantly, Abraham dispatches Hagar and Ismael with just enough sustenance to last a day in the desert. Fortunately, an angel visits Hagar and her son in the wilderness and spares their lives, so that Ishmael may survive and according to legend become the father of the Muslim people. Of course, this will not occur for more than a thousand years when the Prophet Muhammad, who lived from 570-632 A.D., is born. Abraham then cuts a covenant with King Abimelech. It is the first recorded land transaction.
What do we glean from these readings? Humans are capable of horrific and immoral behavior. The standards of behavior and especially how women are treated in many parts of the world have changed dramatically over the centuries. What has not changed is human depravity and sin and the destruction that it brings.
What also has not changed is God’s abhorrence of our sins and the damage wrought to those around us, to ourselves and to our relationship with God, which is predicated upon trust and faithfulness. As we read through these stories, which seem at times to mirror the tragic and painful stories that are reported in the news each day, we are reminded that we truly do need a Savior to save us from ourselves and from human depravity.
One of my colleagues Carol Anderson once said that most of us harbor a very basic image of God that is incorrect and unlike the most prevalent image of God revealed in the Bible, especially in the pages of the New Testament, which reminds us that God responds to us with unconditional love. Throughout the Bible various images of God are conveyed. Not all of them are healthy and accurate, so we must read the Bible with care and always with an understanding as to how the story of salvation will end with Jesus offering himself upon the cross in order that we might be forgiven as a sign of God’s ultimate love for us.
Carol notes that most humans tend to function with one of four images of God unconsciously working within us. The first is that God is like a celestial judge in heaven weighing out the good and the bad that we have done on the scales of justice, and we inevitably are found to be severely lacking. We will be judged badly as a result. The second image is that God is like a celestial traffic cop, lurking, waiting and watching for us to do anything wrong so that God can bust us.
The third image is that God is like a beloved grandfather, who always loves and accepts us no matter how bad we have behaved or how much we have angered our family. This loving grandfather turns a blind eye to all the wrong that we do. The fourth and final image is that God is like the smog which hovers over Los Angeles. God is an amorphous unknown something somewhere, but nothing more can be said or known about God.
In verse 8 of Psalm 7 we are told that “The Lord judges the peoples…” Throughout the psalms, God is often depicted as a judge, who weighs our life out upon the scales of justice. The psalmist calls upon God to “…judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that it in me.” (Ps 7:8)
Based upon what we have just read in Genesis, many humans fall far short of righteousness. If we were to depend solely upon our good and evil deeds being weighed out in the balance of life, all of us would be at great peril. What we clearly need is a Savior who will atone for our sins and offer forgiveness for all the ways that we have fallen short of what God has intended for us. What we need is Jesus.
Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount with a whole series of pithy sayings that rank among the greatest spiritual wisdom passed down to humankind. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,” urges Jesus. (Matt. 7:1) “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.” (Matt. 7:7)
We are urged to “Enter through the narrow gate…” (Matt. 7:13) and to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15) These are words of caution that will travel down through the centuries. Jesus’ teaching throughout this chapter is easy to understand and it is very practical. The challenge is putting it into practice. Everyone who embodies this teaching in his or her life will be like a tree that bears good fruit or a house that is built upon the rock. This chapter is well worth re-reading and underlying key passages.
One of the most crucial things about reading the entire Bible is to read a portion of the Old and New Testament each day. If we had only read the Old Testament passages from Genesis today, we would likely be left feeling somewhat disgraced to be part of the human race and depressed at the future of humanity. We would probably wonder, “What spiritual message is to be found here?” Fortunately, with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we discover the deep spiritual wisdom that we need to live the kind of loving and godly lives that we seek to live.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt. 7:24)
Inside the front cover of your Bible, write down key verses of the Bible that speak profoundly to you as you read through the Bible. You probably will only need to write down 10 or 20 verses from the Bible or even less. Let these verses be your “go-to passages of the Bible” that you can turn to and reread and rely upon when you are going through a difficult time. This is wisdom that I learned from my wife.
Are you surprised by the actions of some of the people in the Bible and by some of the actions of God as well? How do you see yourself before God? Are you a sinner in need of judgment or a person who does not sin often? What is your image of God – that of a cosmic judge weighing out your sins, a celestial cop looking to bust you, a constantly loving grandparent turning a blind eye, an amorphous unknown something up there or something else?
Almighty and Loving God, we are weak, and you are strong. We are blind, and you are all-seeing, all-knowing and all-loving. From time to time we become profoundly aware of our own shortcomings and sins. We know that we need forgiveness and that we need a Savior. Help us as we prayerfully engage your Word each day and are reminded that we need your grace and goodness. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie