Good Point. Wrong Text.

Abimelech Restoring Sarah to Abraham

Recently, the Association of Biblical Counselors published a blog post arguing that we should not use Sarah lying in Genesis 12 and 20 as justification for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship. The argument runs like this. Sarah did obey Abraham and lie. She put herself in a situation where she could be abused. She submitted to her husband. But 21st century women cannot follow in her footsteps because we are not in the same cultural situation. 

“Abraham and Sarah were nomads. They had no family nearby or “church” community to provide accountability or protection. They lived in a patriarchal culture where women had little choice and few rights.

When Abraham told Sarah to lie and pretend she was his sister, God was Sarah’s only protection. She had no pastor to tell, no elders to turn to, no counselor or hot line to call. God himself stepped in to protect her from Abraham’s foolishness and selfishness, not once, but twice.”

Besides misrepresenting patriarchy in the Scriptures by saying, “women had little choice and few rights” I found the post strange because it twists two texts (Genesis 12 & 20), which only tangentially touch on the main subject of the post, while ignoring more obvious texts and then uses those twisted texts to subvert another clearer text (I Peter 3:6). Got that? No? Let me explain.

First, the author could have gone to a hundred different passages to prove her point that wives should not stay in abusive relationships with their husbands. She says, “I could quote verse after verse about how God hates injustice, oppression, revilers, pride, liars, and those who misuse their authority to hurt others.” Yes, you could. So why don’t you instead of relying upon a difficult interpretation of Sarah’s story? Even a simple verse like “be kind to one another” (Ephesians 4:32) could be used to defend a wife against an abusive husband. Men (and women) use the Bible to defend all sorts of nonsense. A man who thinks the story of Sarah allows him to abuse his wife or a pastor/counselor who thinks this proves a wife should stay an abusive situation has more problems than their interpretation of Genesis. His entire picture of salvation and Christ is skewed. Trying to prove that Sarah’s actions are not an example of godly submission is not the best tactic.

Second, and more importantly, it is not clear that Abraham was asking Sarah to do something wicked. The author says, “We know that God was displeased with Abraham when Abraham told Sarah to lie and say she was his sister, putting her at risk for sexual abuse.”  She goes on to say that God “confronted Abraham’s sin.” Actually that is not what the text says or implies. Abraham comes out relatively clean.

These texts are difficult, but there are several indicators that Abraham was not the sinner in the story. 

  • Abraham is not rebuked by God in either situation. Both kings are rebuked and chastised by the Lord. Pharaoh is plagued by God (Genesis 12:17). Abimelech’s women were barren (Genesis 20:18). Both Abraham and the kings could be guilty, but only the kings are declared guilty by God in the text.  
  • Abraham leaves both scenarios richer (Genesis 12:16, 20:14). Why would God prosper Abraham when he had thrown his wife to the wolves? On the author’s interpretation God is subsidizing disobedience.
  • God tells Abimelech to have Abraham pray for him (Genesis 20:7). God also tells Abimelech if he does not restore Sarah he will die. Abraham is the righteous prophet who calls on God to save Abimelech. God answers this prayer (Genesis 20:17). How does this fit with Abraham being a sinner who put his wife in a position to be abused (Psalm 66:18, James 5:16)?
  • Abraham specifically says that he asked Sarah to say she was his sister because there is no fear of God in the land (Genesis 20:11). It is possible that Abraham asked Sarah to lie not to expose her “sexual abuse” but to protect her from it.  
  • Genesis 20:18 says that the women of Gerar were barren. This means there was sex happening in Abimelech’s house and that it had been going on long enough for folks to start to wonder why there were no growing bellies. That would be at least 2-3 months, possibly longer. And Sarah had been there the whole time. One option is that God protected Sarah despite her lying. Another option is that God protected Sarah because she lied. I think the latter is more plausible.
  • God tells Abimelech that He (the Lord) kept him from sinning (Genesis 20:6). This implies that if Abimelech had slept with Sarah he would have been sinning. No mention is made of Abraham’s sin. 
  • Abimelech calls Abraham Sarah’s “brother” in Genesis 20:16, which means that he accepted Abraham’s story about Sarah being his half-sister as legitimate.  

The blog post makes Sarah’s story about God protecting her from Abraham’s sin, when the text makes it about God protecting Sarah from the wicked kings.

The author of the post implies that I Peter 3:6 is not talking about Sarah’s submission to her husband in these two circumstances. I can see why she wants to say that. If Abraham purposely put Sarah in a position for her to be sexually abused by various kings then we would not want to use that as a godly example of submission. 

But if her interpretation of Sarah’s actions is off then Sarah is a great example of godly submission. These two situations are the clearest examples of submission by Sarah in Genesis 12-23 outside of leaving Ur. What other examples do we have in those chapters of Sarah obeying Abraham and trusting God (I Peter 3:5)? What else could Peter be thinking of? The author, unnecessarily I believe, strips I Peter 3:6 of some of its power by removing two real life examples from Sarah’s life.

The author is right that Sarah’s obedience to Abraham should not be used to justify abuse. On that point we agree. But that is not because of anything found in Genesis. It is because of the rest of Scripture, which makes it clear that men are to love their wives as Christ loves the Church. Therefore Genesis 12 and 20 fit well with Peter’s purposes in I Peter 3:6. Godly women trust in the Lord and obey their husbands, even calling them lord. That is what Sarah did throughout her life and these two situations are places where the Lord rewarded her for that trust and obedience.

Book Review: The Quest for the Historical Adam

The Quest for the Historical Adam Genesis Hermeneutics and HumanThe Quest for the Historical Adam Genesis Hermeneutics and Human by William VanDoodewaard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful book, blending history, theology, and cultural analysis. The author begins in the Patristic era and works through 2013 showing what different theologians believed about the existence of Adam and Eve as the first humans created by God, as well as the age of the earth. The value of the book lies in its extensive scope, covering 2,000 years of church history and touching on all major figures. He stops discussing Roman Catholics after the Reformation. But he does discuss all branches of Protestantism, including Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican, and Dutch Reformed from the Reformation onward.

This book is not an exegetical examination of Genesis 1-2, but rather a collating of various interpretations of Genesis 1-2. The author spends the bulk of the pages on the time since the Enlightenment because there is little if any disagreement on Adam and Eve prior to that time. The wealth of primary sources quoted from is overwhelming and opens numerous avenues of research for those who want more information. There are several article and books listed that I want to read. Several thoughts emerged as I read:

First, superficial appeals to church history by old earth proponents should be challenged. The author does not focus on the age of the earth, but there are enough quotes to let the reader know that simply saying “Augustine did not believe in a literal 24 hour days either” is not sufficient. Force old earth men to say how their system compares to those that came before. Doing that will help one see there are not many connections between old earth today and the more figurative approaches of the early church and even men like Bavinck and Kuyper.

Second, one question that must be answered by old earth proponents is when does the Genesis text become literal and why? Many want Genesis to become literal in 2:4 or later, but before that it is symbolic, analogical, etc. Why? Why is 2:4 literal and 1:24 not?

Third, while many old earth men still hold to a literal Adam and Eve they have no reason to in the text of Genesis. In other words, their hermeneutic of Genesis 1-2 has no brakes. If the days are not 24 hour days then why does Adam have to be a real man? And while their interpretation does not necessitate a non-literal Adam, it also does not require a literal one, which leaves the door open to some of the recent denials that Adam existed at all.

Fourth, the adoption of evolutionary theory for the origins of man is devastating to historic Christianity’s view of man, sin, God, Christ, and salvation. This does not mean that all who adopt evolutionary theory take it this far. But a hermeneutic which allows evolution to squeeze into Genesis 1-2 can, and some would say logically does, lead to the denial of key tenets of the Christian faith.

Fifth, appeals to Ancient Near Eastern cosmologies must be challenged. Men like Walton, Collins, and Enns to varying degrees allow ANE literature to greatly influence their reading of Genesis 1-3 (and even beyond). Why? Why is there the implicit assumption in many discussions that Scripture is downstream from ANE literature instead of the other way around? Why does ANE literature and the Scriptures “share” their context instead of ANE literature being a godless twisting of the Genesis record?

Finally, seminaries and pastors have a duty to be clear on these issues. What is within the bounds of orthodoxy and what is not? The answer to this question is not easy, but it must be found and boldly proclaimed.

View all my reviews

Fearing God Means Withholding Nothing

In Genesis 22 we have a narrative example of what it means to fear God. The story is one of the most famous in Scripture. God calls Abraham to take his son, his only son, the son of promise, up to the top of a mountain and kill him. Abraham obeys the Lord. He takes his son on a three day journey. He ascends the mountain, ties his son down, and prepares to sacrifice him. The Angel of the Lord appears and tells Abraham to stop. Abraham sees a ram in the thicket and uses it for the sacrifice instead of Isaac.

But when the Angel of the Lord appears he says something to Abraham,which shows us what it means to fear God. 

Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me (Genesis 22:12).

Why was Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac such an act of faith? Isaac was Abraham’s son. What man kills his own son, especially at the command of someone else? Isaac was not just any son. Isaac was the son of the promise. Isaac was the only way all of God’s promises could be fulfilled. God had given Abraham great promises (Genesis 12:1-3, 15:4-5). What man takes the promises of God, lays them on the altar and prepares to put a knife in them?  Abraham was not only willing to kill his son, he willing to kill the son that fulfilled all of God’s promises.

In Abraham we see a picture of what it means to fear God. The Lord knew that Abraham feared Him because when he asked for Isaac, Abraham gave him up. The lesson is not difficult to understand though it is difficult to live out. When God asks for something we surrender it.  When someone is in need and we have the goods to help them we do. When a child needs help we give up our time to help them. When God calls upon us to minister to friend in pain we do that. When God calls upon us to move jobs to get our family in a better church we do. When God calls upon us to move churches, leaving behind friends, so we can be in a theological sound church, we do. When God calls upon us to sacrifice our reputation in the name of Christ, we do. When God calls upon us to care for our aging parents, we do. When God calls upon us to preach the sermon that will cause parishioners to leave we do. When God calls upon us to sacrifice that great job to care for our wife, we do.

But there is no sacrifice, like the sacrifice of our children. Our  greatest hopes and dreams often live in our children. We are not Abraham. My sons are not the children of promise like Isaac, though they are building blocks in the Kingdom. Nonetheless we are required to give them up. They are not ours. They belong to God. What if God called my son to Africa and I only got to see him every three years? What if my daughter marries a missionary to India? What if my son is martyred for his faith? What if my daughter’s reputation is destroyed on the Internet because of her love for Jesus? What if I have great dreams for my children, but God has ordinary ones? It is true that whatever we lay on the altar will be resurrected (Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham was willing to kill Isaac because he knew that God raises the dead. Whatever we give up we will receive back in the next life. But that doesn’t make the sacrifice any less painful or necessary. We know we have the faith of our father Abraham when we withhold nothing from God, including that which we value most, our children.

Women’s Ordination and the Rejection of the Created Order

Stephen B. Clark’s last chapter in his great book Man and Woman in Christ  covers ordination, occupation and legislation. He makes three points about women’s ordination that are worth quoting. All words in the quote blocks are him, except for brackets. First;

The study done here [his book] reveals that both Scripture and tradition teach very clearly that the positions of overall government in the Christian community are to be held by men. This is one of the clearest and most consistent principles concerning the structure and order of the Christian people from the time of Christ and the apostles until a very recent period of Christian history. If any authoritative statements about order among the Christian people are undisputed in scripture and tradition, this is surely one of them. To change it is not simply a matter of changing one rule: If this principle can be changed, the Christian people can change any feature of order, and they are not bound by scripture and tradition in shaping their life together. The judgment to ordain women, then, involve the judgment that modern society has reached the point where scripture and tradition cannot definitely guide the structuring of the common life of Christians.

His first point is that ordaining women is a complete rejection of the teaching of Scripture and the history of God’s people. By the way, when he says, “Christian community” he does not mean just church.

Clark goes on to say

Second, the study done in this book indicates that the question of who should be the heads of the Christian people is actually a question of God’s purposes for the human race and how the new humanity [Christians] should be formed. Government of the Christian people is not merely a secondary question of social roles that can be changed with little consequence. Rather, the question involves a broader vision of what human life should be like according to God’s ideal. The ordering of governmental responsibilities is only an expression of that underlying vision. Deciding to have women acting as heads of the Christian people means deciding that the scriptural vision of the life of humans together is no longer applicable or appropriate. A decision about structure and order in this area is a decision about what a body of Christians is trying to be. 

Clark’s second point, derived from his study of Genesis 1-3, is that traditional male/female roles are inherent in the created order and are necessary for the flourishing of the human race.  Christ came to restore the human race through making new creatures.  Becoming a new creature in Christ includes maintaining this distinction between men and women. The rejection of this distinction does not just change the church structure, but is an explicit rejection of God’s goal for the human race. It is odd that many feminists and evangelicals believe that a true restoration of the human race would abolish all these differences.

In his third point he addressing churches, which do not want to ordain women:

These churches are trying to maintain this position without attempting to provide a corresponding social structure to support it. For instance, they do not any longer normally teach very clearly about a difference in the roles of men and women. Yet, unless they do, their position on ordination will become more and more difficult for their people to understand and accept. When rules of order do not structure social life in a helpful way, such rules are often experienced as both restrictive and senseless. Of course these churches could claim a basis other than social structure for holding that women should not be ordained.  That is, they can, for example insist that ordination is a sacramental matter which operates by an entirely different set of rules than the rest of life, and which should have no consequences for social structure…In short, if the churches that presently maintain the prohibition of women’s ordination do not (1) back up their position with clear instruction on family structure, and (2) provide their people with adequate social support to live a way of life different from the technological society around them (one which includes the role difference between men and women) these churches will fail to resolve the current controversy in this area.  Either the issue of women’s ordination will remain a sore point, or it will contribute to an even greater separation between “sacramental” matters and the daily life of the Christian people. 

This final quote is perceptive by Clark. His point is that a refusal to ordain women cannot be properly maintained without being placed in an overarching paradigm of male and female roles that derives from Genesis 1-3, is meant to apply to all humans, and is taught that way to Christian people. Here is how Clark says it in another section of his book:

Christians cannot obey the few clear scriptural directives about order in personal relationships and live in every other respect according to the functional relationships of the modern world and still expect to experience the scriptural directives as an unqualified blessing. 

He lists only two options when the paradigm does not hold: continued contention or sharp dualism. But there is a third option: compromise. Many Christians long before they promoted women elders rejected the traditional reading of male and female roles outlined in Genesis 1-3 as a normative goal for all societies at all times and therefore one that is to be lived by all Christians. For a while the line holds because there is chapter and verse that says, “No women elders.” However, once the traditional reading is rejected, eventually someone says, “I Timothy 2:11-12 and Ephesians 5, as traditionally taught, do not fit our new paradigm.” Those texts, along with others that teach the traditional reading, are eventually reinterpreted to fit the previous reinterpretation of Genesis 1-3. Unless Ephesians 5, I Timothy 2 and texts like these are just a normal extension of God’s purposes for creating the human race then they become “senseless” and arbitrary.

One Flesh Points to Reproduction

Stephen B. Clark commenting on Genesis 2:14.

“While it would be a mistake to regard one flesh solely in terms of sexual intercourse, it would be an even greater mistake to miss the reference to family and reproduction and concentrate instead on the modern idea of companionship. One reason that animals will not do as a partner for man is their inadequacy for reproductive purposes. The man needs someone with whom he can live and establish a household. Implicit in this, especially for the first man, is the need for sexual relations and reproduction.”

Once we make reproduction an option in marriage instead of a normal requirement and expectation we remove one of the impediments to gay marriage. If siring and birthing children is a central part of the marriage relationship then gay marriage makes no sense. Sodomites and lesbians cannot do this. But if the marriage relationship is based primarily or solely on companionship, love, mutual affection for and interest in one another then why can two men or two women or three men with five women or a man and dog not get married? Once again we are reminded that how we interpret Genesis 1-3 will often set  a trajectory for how we view the rest of the Scriptures, the world, man, and fundamental institutions, such as marriage.

There are many reasons gay marriage has become normal in our society. But the failure of Christians to see bearing children as an essential part of marriage has been a contributing factor.

By the way, I am not saying a couple who cannot bear children has a deficient marriage. Note my phrase “normal requirement and expectation.” There are exceptions, but the norm for a married couple should be reproduction.