1-3-2 " Even as Sarah"
The lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his sons are held up in the NT
as our examples. And yet those records are absolutely shot through
with reference to the spiritual weakness of those men, and even
the suggestion that as men they were not 'nice' people. They, the
archetypical believers, aren't good people. Indeed, the records
seem to juxtapose their weakness against the more humanly acceptable
behaviour of the world around them. The whole business of Jacob
obtaining the blessing from his slightly drunk father Isaac is almost
comical; dressed up with skins, with his mum prodding him under
the ribs saying " Go on, go on, it's my sin not yours"
; Jacob must have been willing the old boy to hurry up, knowing
as he did that Esau was about to come in with his meal. Yet
this was the most Godly family on earth at the time. Consider further
Abraham tells Sarah to say she is his sister, not his wife,
and (by implication) let the Egyptians sleep with her rather
than kill him. And straight after this, God blesses
Abraham with riches (Gen. 12:11 - 13:2).
Pharaoh was attracted to her, and took her into his house.
But he didn't sleep with her, and was willing to allow a
period of time to elapse before marrying her, in order not
to insult her dignity (cp. Dt. 21:13).
Abraham made the
very same mistake with Abimelech of Gerar (Gen. 20:1-13);
and it seems he did it many other, unrecorded times (Gen.
Isaac does just the same with Abimelech (Gen. 26:7-11).
And again, God blesses Isaac straight after this faithless,
immoral incident (Gen. 26:12). Believers aren't good people!
Isaac's criticism of them seems unreasonably aggressive
and paranoiac: " Wherefore come ye to me, seeing ye
hate me?" (Gen. 26:27-29).
Abraham ought to
have apologized to Abimelech. But instead Abimelech gives
him a present (Gen. 10:14-16).
Again, Abimelech and his people do the honourable thing.
The people of Gerar surely had the impression that the Abraham
family were a faithless, unprincipled lot compared to themselves.
Truly could they reply: " we saw certainly that the
Lord was with thee... we have not touched thee, and as we
have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee
away in peace" .
Abraham and Sarah
doubt God's promise of a seed, and so Sarah pushes Abraham
to have an affair with Hagar her servant. When Hagar gets
(understandably) full of womanly pride at her conception,
Sarah persecutes her and drives her out to certain death
in the wilderness. True believers aren't good or nice people!
God seems to take
Hagar's side, He hears her affliction, He looks upon her,
and makes a covenant with her (Gen. 16). Hagar believes
God's promise to her, and praises Him for it. Sarah laughs
at God's promise to her as being a joke (Gen. 18:12-15).
And even worse, when she is reprimanded for doing this,
she flatly denies she ever laughed.
Sarah again tries
to kill Hagar and her son Ishmael, apparently because of
the teenage Ishmael mocking the baby Isaac. Whilst this
incident is symbolic of the persecution of the righteous
by the wicked (Gal. 4:29), this in no way justifies Sarah's
behaviour. And yet straight after this shameful business,
God blesses Abraham in all that he does (Gen. 21:22).
God again justifies
Hagar and takes her side against a rather unreasonable mistress
(Gen. 21:12-20)- who is held up in the NT as our example,
although, it is stressed, not in her weaker aspects (1 Pet.
Jacob, on a human
level, compares unfavourably to Esau. He cruelly deceived
his brother, and all his life long hated him and lied to
him (consider 33:13-15).
Mal. 1:4 makes the point that Edom (Esau) was zealous to
return and rebuild the ravaged land which God had once given
him, whereas Israel wasn’t.
Judah took a Canannite woman and shamefully treated her
When Esau had the
chance to take vengeance on Jacob, he wonderfully forgave
him. He never lied to Jacob.
And yet despite this, God says He still chose to love Israel
(Jacob) and hate Esau. His behaviour in this is an example
of how He saves by pure grace and not works.
Esau took Canaanite women, but married them and treated
them responsibly (36:2).
The inspired comment is that "Esau despised his birthright",
not "So Jacob supplanted his brother"- even though
Hos. 12:4 implies that God took a dim view of this- for
Jacob's poor behaviour to Esau is contrasted to his later
Dinah goes downtown
to have a fling. She ends up sleeping with the prince of
Shechem. As a result of this, her brothers trick the men
of Shechem into being circumcised and them come and murder
the lot of them. Humanly, the sons of Jacob, unrepentant
as they were (34:31), should have taken the consequence
of their evil at the hand of the vengeful surrounding tribes.
But God, in His grace, preserves them by a miracle (35:5).
The Prince of Shechem
didn't rape her, and he didn't just discard her. He could
easily have just taken her as his wife with no more discussion
with her family. He did the honourable thing in that he
honestly wanted to marry her, and would do absolutely anything
to enable this (Gen. 34).
Abraham's behaviour towards Hagar and Ishmael was actually illegal in terms of the near Eastern legal codes. Those of Lipit-Ishtar and Hammurabi, as well as the laws of Nuzi amongst the Hurrians, all specifically stated that a husband with a barren wife may take a concubine through whom he could have offspring, but if his wife then hasa children, he must not ever disinherit or expel from the family the concubine and her children (1). Yet Abraham did exactly this, effectively casting out Ishmael and Hagar into the desert, to walk until they perished of heat exposure. Perhaps God's later demand of Abraham to sacrifice his son, "your son, your only son, Isaac" (Gen. 22:2) was an implicit criticism of Abraham for having rejected Ishmael as his son; and he was asked to enter into the loss of a child, as he had effectively sacrificed Ishmael to the desert.
It's often been observed that there are so many people in the world
who are 'nicer', 'better' than we are. And in some ways, on a human
level, this seems true. Christian believers aren't good people.
And yet we have been called to salvation, not them. I would
guess that the more reflective among the Abraham family had exactly
the same thought. And yet God chose weak, apathetic Israel- not
because they were righteous, but because they were predestined,
unconditionally as far as we can understand it, to this calling.
And the calling of spiritual Israel is no different. In the fact
God called Israel to be His people we see the depth, the very essence,
of salvation by grace, not works or committed righteousness. The
desperate sinners, not the apparently righteous, are the ones God
calls. Israel were warned that they were being given the land (cp.
salvation) " not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness
of thy heart...for thou art a stiffnecked people" (Dt. 9:5,6).
These words are picked up in Tit. 3:5 and applied to the new Israel:
" Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according
to his mercy he saved us, by the washing (baptism) of regeneration,
and renewing of the Holy Spirit" - by His grace alone.
Those who enter the Kingdom will genuinely, from the very depth
of their being, feel that they shouldn't be there. Indeed, they
shouldn't be. For Christian believers aren't good people. We are
saved by grace alone. The righteous are " scarcely saved"
(1 Pet. 4:18). The righteous remnant who spoke often to one another
about Yahweh will only be " spared" by God's grace (Mal.
3:17). The accepted will feel so certain of this that they will
almost argue with the Lord Jesus at the day of judgment that He
hasn't made the right decision concerning them (Mt. 25:37-40). It's
only a highly convicted man who would dare do that. Thus the Father
will have to comfort the faithful in the aftermath of the judgment,
wiping away the tears which will then (see context) be
in our eyes, and give us special help to realize that our sinful
past has now finally been overcome (Rev. 21:4). We will be like
the labourers in the parable who walk away clutching their penny,
thinking " I really shouldn't have this. I didn't work for
a day, and this is a day's pay" . Therefore if we honestly,
genuinely feel that we won't be in the Kingdom, well, this is how
in some ways the faithful will all feel. Although by the very nature
of being in this state, just knowing this won't change how we feel.
We won't think " Oh, I feel I'll be rejected, so, great, that
means I won't be" . But we must simply be aware that it is
God's earnest desire to save repentant sinners. He will even bend
His own laws to enable this. Consider how within His own law, it
was an abomination for a man to re-marry the woman he had divorced.
Yet this notwithstanding, God abases Himself in asking worthless
Israel to re-marry Him (Dt. 24:4 cp. Jer. 3:1). Even though leaven
was prohibited in offerings (Lev. 2:11), God was willing to accept
a peace offering with leaven in it (Lev. 7:13). And for a freewill
offering, He would accept a deformed animal (Lev. 22:23), even though
this was against His preferred principle of absolute perfection
in offerings. There was no atonement without the shedding of blood;
and yet for the very poor, God would accept a non-blood sacrifice.
This all reflected the zeal of God to accept fallen men. The relationship
between Solomon and his bride in the Song is evidently typical of
ours with the Lord. Yet she has major problems: he always addresses
her directly, yet she always answers indirectly (“he cometh...he
standeth...he brought me”), often with some awkwardness and sense
that she is unworthy of his love, and that his glowing descriptions
of her are exaggeration. She is depicted as in doubt, lost, asleep,
uncertain, reluctant, moody, sometime in love with him sometimes
not, in need of reassurance despite the greatness of his love (“let
him kiss me...”).
Believers aren't good people. But the Biblical evidence is that
those who will be in the Kingdom basically love God, but really
feel they shouldn't be in His Kingdom. There is much Biblical reason
to believe that we should be positive about the fact we will surely
be in the Kingdom. And yet the Biblical pictures of the judgment
indicate that the accepted will not have grasped this aspect as
strongly as they might have done. And this is exactly, exactly the
position which I sense so many of us are in: not believing as strongly
as we might the positive fact that we really will be in the Kingdom
because we are in Christ, and yet experiencing answered prayer,
basically holding on, albeit with a deeper sense of their unworthiness
than of God's grace. These characteristics, which are clearly seen
in so many of us, are the very characteristics of the faithful in
the Biblical descriptions of the judgment. And therefore, many of
us will be in the Kingdom of God. This isn't playing with
logic or the semantics of Biblical exposition. Like Peter, I am
" exhorting and testifying, that this is the true
grace of God wherein ye stand" (1 Pet. 5:12).
To my mind, there is one example which stands out most remarkably.
The record seems to anticipate this in the way the case of Sarah
is introduced: "Through faith even Sarah herself received strength
to conceive seed" (Heb. 11:11 RV). "Even Sarah herself"
is clearly making a point, holding up a flashing light over this
particular example. There is every reason to think, from the Genesis
record, that Sarah not only lacked faith in the promises, but also
had a bitter, unspiritual mind. The account alludes back to Eve's
beguiling of Adam when it records how "Abram hearkened to the
voice of Sarai" (Gen. 16:2) in acquiescing to her plan to give
her a seed through Abram marrying his slave girl. The whole thing
between Sarah and Abraham seems wrong on at least two counts: firstly
it reflects a lack of faith in the promise; and secondly it flouts
God's ideal standards of marriage. Sarai seems to have recognized
the error when she bitterly comments to Abram: "My wrong be
upon thee" (16:5). Her comment that "the Lord hath restrained
me from bearing" (16:2) would suggest that she thought she
hadn't been chosen to bear the promised seed. Yet because of her
faith, says Heb. 11:11, she received strength to bear that seed.
Hagar was so persecuted by Sarah that she "fled from her face"
(16:6). God's attitude to Hagar seems to reflect a certain amount of sympathy
for the harsh way in which Sarah had dealt with her. These years of bitterness
and lack of faith came to the surface when Sarah overheard the Angel assuring
Abraham that Sarah really would have a son. She mockingly laughed at the
promise, deep within herself (18:15). Yet according to Heb. 11:11, she
rallied her faith and believed. But as soon as Isaac was born, her bitterness
flew to the surface again when she was Ishmael mocking. In what can only
be described as unrestrained anger, she ordered Hagar and Ishmael out
into the scorching desert, to a certain death (humanly speaking). Again,
one can sense the sympathy of God for Hagar at this time. And so wedged
in between incidents which belied a deep bitterness, lack of faith and
pride (after Isaac was born), the Spirit in Heb. 11:11 discerns her faith;
on account of which, Heb. 11:12 implies ("therefore"), the whole
purpose of God in Christ could go forward.
Sarah's screaming indignation can be well imagined. Consider which words
were probably stressed most by her: "Cast out this bondwoman and
her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir (just hear her
voice!) with my son, even with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10). This is in harmony
with her previous bitterness and aggression to Hagar and Abraham. Her
attitude in implying that Ishmael was not the seed is gently rebuked by
God in his subsequent words to Abraham concerning Ishmael: "He is
thy seed" (Gen. 21:13). And yet Sarah's words are quoted in Gal.
4:30 as inspired Scripture! Here we see the wonder of the God with whom
we deal, in the way in which He patiently bore with Sarah and Abraham.
He saw through her anger, her jealousy, the pent up bitterness of a lifetime,
and he saw her faith. And he worked through that screaming, angry woman
to be His prophet. According to Gal. 4:30, God Himself spoke through her
in those words, outlining a principle which has been true over the generations;
that the son of the slave must be cast out, and that there must always
be conflict between him and the true seed. Sarah in her time of child-birth
is likened to us all as we enter the Kingdom, full of joy (Is. 54:1-4);
and yet at that time she was eaten up with pride and joy that she could
now triumph over her rival. And yet Sarah at that time is seen from a
righteous perspective, in that she is a type of us as we enter the Kingdom.
God's mercy to Sarah and Abraham is repeated to us daily.
The Discernment Of God
The way in which God chooses the good side of Sarah and recognizes it
for what it is can be seen even more finely in 1 Pet. 3:4-6. Here sisters
are bidden follow Sarah's example of
1. Having a meek and quiet spirit
2. Not outwardly adorning herself
3. Obeying Abraham
4. And calling him her "Lord".
It can be shown that the Spirit in Peter is adopting an extremely positive
reading of Sarah.
1. She isn't revealed as having a meek and quiet spirit at all; but
presumably, God saw that underneath her anger and bitterness there was
a meekness and quietness, perhaps especially seen as she grew older.
2,3. Concerning not outwardly "adorning", the Greek text
is alluding to the Septuagint of Gen. 20:16, which says that Abimelech
told Sarah that he had given Abraham many silver pieces "that
these may therefore be for thee to adorn thy countenance"(2).
Abimelech is speaking sarcastically (note how he calls Abraham
"thy brother", referring to Sarah and Abraham's family
relationship). It was a custom for married women to wear their
silver pieces on their face (cp. Lk. 15:8). Presumably she had
taken these off, in order to appear single and sexually available.
Abimelech is saying: "I've given your so-called 'brother'
Abraham 1000 silver pieces, so just make sure you wear them in
future and don't lead any more men into sin". And what does
the Spirit comment? "Thus she was reproved" (Gen. 20:16).
Her willingness to pretend she was single and not refusing the
sexual advances of Abimelech can only be seen in a negative light
from the Genesis record. She lacked continued faith in the promises
of a seed, and she disregarded God's marriage principles for the
sake of an all too convenient 'obedience' to her husband. It may
have been that she regarded her inability to have children as
partly his fault (cp. the deadness of Abraham's body, Rom. 4:19).
The thing is, she had already shown enough faith to conceive (Heb.
11:11), and presumably the effect of this was seen in the physical
rejuvenation of her body, which made her so attractive to men,
although she was 90 years old. Both Sarah and Abraham had shown
faith, she was living with her own body as the constant reminder
of God's faithfulness, and yet in the incident with Abimelech
she wavered and had to be reproved. Yet she is seen in a positive
light by the Spirit; her lack of wearing ornaments, even though
it was to show she was single, is commended; as is her obedience
to her husband, even though she was reproved for this. The point
is, like all of us, her motives were probably mixed. She did want
to be truly obedient to Abraham, she did want to have a meek spirit
rather than outward adorning. Her wrong motives surfaced, and
were rebuked. But God saw deep inside her heart, and saw the good
motives, and drags them out and holds them up as an example.
4. Sarah is commended for calling Abraham her "Lord" (1 Pet.
3:6). She is recorded as doing this in one place only: "Sarah laughed
within herself, saying, After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure,
my lord being old also?" (Gen. 18:12). She doubted God's promise;
she is rebuked for this by the Angel. Yet in doing so, when she came
to think of Abraham, in her heart she called him "my lord".
So in the midst of her lack of faith in one respect, she also had a
commendable attitude to Abraham. All this, don't forget, was going on
"within herself". God searched her thoughts, He saw her wrong
attitudes there deep in her heart, and He saw what was commendable there
too; and through Peter He drags this out and reveals it to us all as
"Thou God seest me..."
All this opens up a wider issue. There are many Bible characters who
appear to behave wrongly, but are spoken of in later revelation as if
they were righteous. Lot is a classic example. Why is this? Why, for example,
is the Genesis record about Sarah so open about her weakness, but the
New Testament commentary sifts through this and reveals the righteous
aspect of her motives? Surely it's to show that God sees us very differently
to how we appear on the surface, both to our brethren and even to ourselves.
He knows every motive, He alone untangles our motives and thoughts; He
sees what is truly behind our actions. It is not just that He has the
power to do this if He wishes; He does it all the time. God is thinking
of us and our inner thoughts and motives every moment. Every piece of
body language reveals something, every thought.
Or consider Elijah. Here was a man of genuinely outstanding faith. He
heard in the ears of faith the sound of rain, before he even formally
prayed for it (1 Kings 18:40-42 cp. James 5:17,18). And yet, reading through
the record, there is ample evidence that at the very same time as he showed
such faith, he had a hardness and arrogance which was contrary to the
spirit of the Lord Jesus. And Paul had the same feature.
Samson's remarkable faith amidst a pathetically apostate Israel was marred
by an insatiable desire for women. Although articulated in a more respectable
way, David's fine spirituality was plagued with a similar malaise. Each
of these men (and examples could be added) must have been smitten at times
with a sense of hypocrisy. And yet ultimately, they won through in the
battle of faith. The fact we may feel deep contradictions within our spirituality
should not therefore, and cannot therefore, be shrugged off as an inevitable
result of bearing human nature. Such contradictions are deadly serious.
But the fact is, many who have endured them all their lives did eventually
make good, in God's eyes.
Because of our nature, we are largely blind to our true spiritual selves.
Because of this, the parables imply, the day of judgment will be such
a surprise (e.g. Mt. 25:34-40). Both righteous and wicked will find that
they are criticized and commended for things which surprise them. There
are several indications that because of this, the rejected will begin
to argue back with Christ (e.g. Mt. 7:22), until eventually they realize
their errors, stop speaking (Mt. 22:12) and gnash their teeth in anger
against themselves (Mt. 22:13). This should truly be a sobering thought
to us all. We must strive, really, to examine ourselves, to know ourselves,
to try to see our motives and actions a little more from God's perspective;
because it is His perspective, not ours, which is ultimately important;
and it is this lesson which the day of judgment will ultimately teach
each of us. Contemplation of the death of the Lord Jesus is intended to
stimulate our self-examination and self-knowledge. Those who saw it "smote
upon their breasts" (Lk. 23:48), an idiom only used elsewhere for
true penitence and realization of personal sinfulness (Lk. 18:13). However,
the lesson of how the Spirit writes in Heb. 11, the lesson of how God
perceives Sarah's thoughts, is extremely encouraging and positive. Sarah
would have been seen as an angry, frustrated old woman. And in her honest
moments, probably she recognized that this was all she was, and this in
turn probably made her the more bitter. But God saw the good in her which
she herself probably didn't recognize, and which her surrounding world
almost certainly didn't see; although He never revealed this to her during
her mortal life.
So as and when we feel hypocritical, reflect on these examples of Sarah
and Abraham and so many others. Remember too that it is a feature of our
nature that we can believe and yet disbelieve at the same time. The father
of the epileptic boy is the clearest example: "I believe; help thou
mine unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). Some of "the Jews" and men like
Nicodemus are described as believing, when it is evident that at the time
they also harboured serious reserve. The disciples believed (Jn. 16:27;
17:8), and yet at the same time they disbelieved (Mt. 17:20; Lk. 24:25).
They perhaps realized their half faith when they asked for their faith
to be increased (Lk. 17:5). This is of itself shows that in practice,
faith is not an absolute. Study 9 shows how several remarkable believers
still had elements of disbelief and weakness in them, right to their dying
moments. It is, sadly, only to be expected that we too have our hypocrisies
now. This is not to preach complacency, rather an appreciation of what
our nature and likely spiritual growth pattern is all about.
(1) Angel Gonzales, Abraham: Father of Believers (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967) p. 74.
(2) Gesenius comments on this: "The
LXX... gives the meaning correctly". See H.W.F. Gesenius, Hebrew-Chaldee
Lexicon p. 407 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992 Ed.).