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HOUND OF HEAVEN POEM
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THE HOUND OF HEAVEN

(A NARRATIVE COMMENTARY)
 By Morris A. Inch

TABLE OF CONTENTS

SECTION ONE

Preface
Where are You?
My Brother’s Keeper
The Rains Came
Tower of Babel
Retrospect and Prospect
By Faith
The Akeda/Binding
Arranged Marriage 
For Better & Worse

SECTION TWO

Murphy's Law
The Favored One
Favored Still
Turn of Events
Let My People Go
A Vassal Treaty
The Spies’ Report
The Crossing
Jericho
The Unfinished Task

SECTION THREE

Turbulent Times
The Transition
Change of Command
The Chase
The Shepherd King
The Sage Ruler
The Prophets
Covenant Renewal
Into Exile
Sentimental Journey

SECTION FOUR

The Silent Years
Drama of Decision
Glad Tidings
The Early Years
Prelude to Ministry 
Ministry Motif 
The Rabbi
Wonder Worker
The Messiah
Suffering Servant

SECTION FIVE

He Is Risen!
The Ascension
Pouring Out
The Apostles’ Teaching 
Greater Things 
Pot Holes  
Christian Nurture
Running the Race
The Appearance
Shalom

ENDNOTES BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

PREFACE
 

There have been few more graphic allusions in English literature than Francis Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven. One is immediately captured by the imagery, and left to ponder its implications. Forgotten momentarily, some incident recalls it to our attention. Thus are we reminded of God’s resolute pursuit of his wayward creature.

In greater detail, 

I fled Him down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears

I fled Him . . . .

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with hurrying chase,

And unperturbed pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instance,

They beat—and a voice beat

More instant than the Feet—

“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.” 

Qualifications aside, Thompson echoes the psalmist.  “Where shall I flee from your presence?” the latter rhetorically inquires. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (139:7-10). The Hound of Heaven will not be denied.

Allowing for similarities, every person’s experience is distinctive. For instance, a certain lad grew up in a village culture. His family was not church-going, although his mother faithfully heard his prayers—until such time as it was decided that he could manage on his own.

By this time, the existence of God seemed problematic. His confidence was shaken by the realization that Santa Claus was a fabrication, even though there seemed more concrete evidence than in the case of the Almighty. This was coupled with other considerations, too numerous to mention.

Upon reaching maturity, he was called upon to serve in the military during World War II. This provided opportunity to experiment with a range of activities, both good and bad. One day he made his way to the base chapel, where he sat by himself—along with the thoughts that had accumulated over the years.

Toward the close of the service, the chaplain gave an invitation—which caused the recruit to wonder if the cleric had become emotionally unglued. Still, upon leaving the chapel, it occurred to him that since God would be an alien creature, he might use strange means to get one’s attention.

Accordingly, he reached out to a problematic deity, suggesting that should the Chaplain repeat his peculiar behavior the following Sunday, he would delve into the matter. This eventuated in a pilgrimage in quest of the Celestial City. How do I know of these things? I am that person.

It remains to consider how best to approach the topic. For a number of reasons, it seemed that historical narrative was the preferable alternative. If for no other reason, it appeals to the oral nature of our emerging culture. Then, too, most folks enjoy and benefit from a good story, and The Hound of Heaven is assuredly a prime example. 

  

 

WHERE ARE YOU?

 

One is usually well-advised to begin with the beginning. God created the heavens and the earth, a comprehensive idiom embracing our space/time continuum. He formed man at the climax of his creative activity, and placed him in paradise—as a steward of creation. He also created woman, as a companion.

They were allowed to eat from all of the produce except that concerning the knowledge of good and evil. While less certain, this is also likely a comprehensive idiom—not unlike our use of our expression from the east to the west. If so, then to eat of the tree would be to declare one’s autonomy. In spite of the prohibition, the original couple ate from the tree, with the apparent intent of usurping divine prerogatives.

Now they heard God walking in the garden, during the cool of the day. This invokes an imagery with which anyone familiar with Middle Eastern culture can readily identify. As if to renew one’s energies, after an oppressively hot day. Whereupon, they attempted to hide themselves among the trees.

“Where are you?” the Lord God called out to them (Gen. 3:9). It was not that he was uniformed, but meant them to give an account of their unacceptable behavior.

“I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked,” Adam replied.  His pristine character was compromised.

“Who told you that you were naked?” the Almighty inquired of him. “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” “These further questions are not those of an ignorant inquirer. Their very formulation suggest the all-knowing detective who by his questioning prods the culprit into confessing his guilt.”1

In proverbial terms, “Confession is good for the soul.” Not only does it qualify as a reality check, but is a necessary prerequisite to reconciliation.

Nevertheless, Adam equivocates: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” He does not pretend to be a helpless victim, but a reluctant accomplice. Then, too, God must assume some of the blame for bringing the temptress into the garden.

The Lord God shows remarkable restraint. Turning to the woman, he inquires: “What is this you have done?” According to Jewish tradition, “Where there are two Jews there are at least three opinions.”

“The serpent deceived me, and I ate,” Eve replied. Initially, by impugning what God has said. Subsequently, in hopes of what might be gained. Finally, by misrepresenting the situation.

“Cursed are you above all the livestock and all the wild animals!” God addresses the serpent. “You will crawl on your belly and you will east dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

Eat dust is likely a figurative expression, implying abject humiliation. For instance, “The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust” (Psa. 72:9). Likewise, “They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust of your feet” (Isa. 49:23).

This is further borne out by its unequal struggle with mankind, in which the best the serpent can do is to strike at his heel—while being crushed under foot. Irenaeus takes  this to be an allusion to Christ: “He was therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who has at the beginning led us away captives in Adam, and trampled upon his head.”2

Turning to the woman, God declared: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Pain and oppression thus appear on the horizon. “‘To love and to cherish becomes ‘To desire and to dominate’. While even pagan marriage can rise far above this, the pull of sin is always towards it. An echo of the phrase, in 4:7b, conjures up still more vividly the suggestion of the jungle.”3

Turning to Adam, God declared:

Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are to dust you will return. 

By way of contrast, a land is blessed when well-watered and fertile. In greater detail,

May the Lord bless his land with the precious dew from heaven above and with the deep waters that lie below, with the best the sun brings forth and the finest the moon can yield; with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills, with the gift of the earth and its fullness and the favor of him who dwelt in the burning bush (Deut. 33:13-16).

While it was not the best of situations, neither was it the worst. Granted, man had violated the conditions for residence in paradise, and would encounter grievous difficulties. Conversely, God had not utterly forsaken him. As cogently expressed, “It is better to be in the hands of a wrathful deity than to fall out of them.” And so the chase begins, with The Hound of Heaven in following after his errant creatures.

* * *  

 

 

MY BROTHER’S KEEPER

 

The people lamented, “Our fathers sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment” (Lam. 5:7). They thus recognized the lingering effects of sin, especially when it is introduced early on. Additionally, the seriousness of our default becomes increasingly evident.

Now Eve gave birth to a son. She called him Cain, for she allowed: “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man” (Gen. 4:1)—derived from the term meaning to gain or acquire. Consequently, the rabbis reasoned that there are three involved in giving birth: God and the human couple. While all have invested interests, that of the Lord God takes precedence.

She later gave birth to a younger sibling. He came to be called Abel, with allusion to the transitory nature of life. In this regard, man resembles the grass fo the field, which shortly withers away (cf. Matt. 6:30). This was vividly illustrated when his life was cut short.

Abel kept the flocks, while Cain worked the soil. Neither vocation is singled out for commendation nor criticism. Accordingly, the information appears calculated to explain what would shortly transpire.

It came to pass that Cain brought indiscriminate fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord, while Abel set apart select portions of the firstborn of his flock. Although some introduce the notion of blood sacrifice, this seems out of context. Instead, Abel treats  the sacrifice as if recognizing an honored guest, whereas Cain made only a  token effort. As a result, God was pleased with Abel’s gift, but not that of Cain.

Cain was angry and became dejected. Any ill-will he may have felt toward his younger sibling was heightened by the turn of events. “Why are you angry?” God inquired of him. “Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires to have you, but you must master it.” Sin is thus likened to a wild beast, waiting to pounce on its unsuspecting victim. 

“Let’s go out to the field,” Cain urged his brother. While there he attacked his younger sibling and killed him. Needless to say, he had ignored the Lord’s warning.

Then the Lord God inquired of him, “Where is your brother Abel?” As for clarification, “Ideally the first line of support in a family comes from the older to the younger; when a younger brother gets into difficulty that threatens his existence or his property, the older brother acts to deliver him (Lev. 12:25, 47-49).”4

“I don’t know,” Cain protested. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” His response was in contrast to that of Adam, who readily admitted his fault. Moreover, it was expressed in sarcastic manner, meant to dispel the notion that one could be expected to keep a constant watch over his brother. Finally, it was a blatant lie. 

“What have you done?” the Lord expresses his utter astonishment. “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. In this regard, the early Christians were cautioned: “If, therefore, you do not forgive offenders, who can you expect the remission of your own sins? Do not you rather bind yourselves faster, by pretending in your prayers to forgive, when you really do not forgive?”5

“Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground,” the Lord solemnly continues. “It will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” The curse struck at Cain’s self-identity, since it was associated with the soil.  Henceforth, he would be forced to embrace an itinerant lifestyle.

    “My punishment is more than I can bare,” Cain pled. Not only did the prospect displease him, but he feared that someone would take vengeance.

“Not so,” the Lord replied. Then he put a mark on Cain so that none would retaliate against him for the murder of his sibling. Having disregarded the divine initiative, he was left to manage under difficult circumstances. So the chase continues.

* * *

 

 

THE RAINS CAME

 

The situation turned from bad to worse. “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). One could scarcely imagine a more scathing indictment. So it came to pass that the Lord determined to purge the earth of its human contagion, and start over. This resembled the potter, who upon discovering some defect in his work recasts his clay. It thus bears witness to his creativity.

However, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” He “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” “‘Blameless’ describes a person who faithfully observes God’s laws and avoids wrong-going; ‘blameless’ depicts a person of integrity who zealously seeks to please God in everything.”6

“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” the oracle rhetorically inquires (Amos 3:3). Obviously not! In this regard, Noah determined to accompany the Lord God. In so doing, he escaped the social malaise of his time.

Whereupon, the Almighty confided in him: “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood,” to escape the ravages of the flood. Then, too, to accommodate his extended family, and animals meant to replenish the earth.

“Now Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” This was an expression  not only of his faith but obedience. In brief, those who obey, believe; and those who believe, obey. Moreover, the term just implies the meticulous care with which the patriarch carried out his duties.

Then the Lord enjoined Noah, “Go into the ark, you and your whole family, because I have found you righteous in this generation” (7:1). Once again, “Noah did all that the Lord commanded him.” In proverbial terms, having put his hand to the plow, he was not inclined to turn back (cf. Luke 9:62).

Now the patriarch was well advanced in years at the time. As for commentary, even after the original couple “were expelled from Eden, it would seem that conditions for longevity were still far more favorable than they later became after the Flood; and there may well have been a virtual absence of disease. By Moses’ time a lifetime of seventy years was considered normal.”7

So it came to pass that “the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.” For all practical purposes, God thus reversed his activity on the second and third days of creation, wherein he separated the waters above from that bellow, and allowed land to appear. “For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, and as the waters increased they lifted the ark high above the earth.”

Above all else, the ark would come to represent the preservation and renewal of life. Thus while man may opt for death, God chooses life. Consequently, those who relish life are in harmony with God’s gracious intent.

The flood waters eventually began to recede. In anticipation, Noah sent out a raven, which kept flying back and forth. He subsequently dispatched a dove, which returned to the ark. After waiting seven more days, the patriarch again set out the dove. This time it returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf! “Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth” (8:11). After seven more days, he released the dove a third time, and it did not return—confirming his appraisal.

Then the patriarch built an altar to the Lord, and sacrificed upon it. Figuratively speaking, “The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: ‘Never gain will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood.’”

God confirmed his intent with the patriarch, and chose the rainbow as a reminder. This was presumably because it resembled a bow lifted high overhead, as signifying peace. Then the Lord God declared, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.” So it was that a tragic event concluded on a promising note.

* * *  

 

 

TOWER OF BABEL

 

“Now the whole world had one language and a common speech” (Gen. 11:1). How are we to reconcile this with the prior admission that they employed multiple languages (cf. 10:5, 20, 31)? “Students of ancient and modern languages are well acquainted with the phenomenon of a lingua franca, a medium of communication among representatives of different speech groups. At various times in antiquity, Sumerian, Babylonian, Aramaic, and Greek each served in this capacity.”8

“Come,” they admonished one another, “let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the earth.” “The people wanted to avoid being scattered over the earth by establishing their own power base without any regard for God. A city enables a mass of people to live together in a small area, and it offers an environment far less dominated by the vicissitude of nature.”9

Their erection of a tower recalls an African story concerning when the High God decided to relocate, since humans either deliberately or unintentionally offended him. Accordingly, the mother of men suggested that a tower be built—which would extend into the heavens. However, the builders soon ran out of tiles. She then counseled them to take tiles off the bottom the pile and put them on top. At this, the whole structure came tumbling down.

They then decided that there was nothing that could be done about the matter, but they must wait to see if the High God would return. This, moreover, would provide a convincing rationale for the Lord’s gracious initiative, and helps explain its ready acceptance by the populace. 

Now the Lord God came down to observe what was transpiring. While a metaphorical expression, it seems in the form of sarcasm. In particular, that which seemed such a grandiose project was actually so minuscule that the Lord had to draw near to make out what was going on.

In this regard, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my (God’s) ways higher than your (man’s) ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). This was complicated not simply because of man’s finiteness but fallen condition. As a result, life became badly distorted.

In order to frustrate their perverse intent, the Almighty decides to confuse their language and thereby disrupt their social cohesion. In greater detail, differing languages separate people, so that uncertainty and mistrust are cultivated. In this instance, the common enterprise faltered and came to an end. The people were scattered, in keeping with the Lord’s expressed intent that they should inhabit the whole earth.

God had better things in store for mankind. This would be evidenced in the call of Abram, as a means of reaching out to a deviant people. A seemingly inconsequential event in the course of ancient history would thus have a profound influence. 

Accordingly, our attention is drawn to those assembled for the celebration of Pentecost. There was suddenly a sound which resembled “a violent wind from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-4).

There were at the time Jews dwelling from the diaspora present. “Utterly amazed,” they inquired: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” It seems eminently clear that the intent was to describe this critical event in salvation history as a reversal of the drama that unfolded concerning the Tower of Babel.

Thus are we reminded of the critical importance of factoring the Lord into life’s equation. The failure to do so is calculated to end in disaster. In this regard, Jesus rhetorically inquires: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The answer is little or nothing. So we would conclude that The Hound of Heaven is bent on a fortuitous mission.

* * *

 

 

RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT

 

As previously intimated, the call of Abram signaled a major departure from what preceded it. This, then, encourages us to look back over the course we have traveled, and anticipate that which remains. In this connection, it is worth noting how much purposeful repetition occurs in Holy Writ.

Initially, we encountered humans in the context of a delightful garden setting. It provided all that was genuinely necessary for fulfilling life. This included a variety of appealing produce, aesthetically pleasing surroundings, and companionship.

Then, too, the Almighty seemed eminently close. As when he would walk in the garden during the cool of the day. Also that he spoke with humans whenever disposed to do so.

“Wherefore a man should treasure it (life), not despise it; affirm and not deny it, have faith in it and never despair of its possibilites. For behind it is God. Life is good and man can find it such provided—and this is the great condition to everything else—that it is lived properly.”10 There is the rub, in that we must live it according to God’s design.

Given the choice, humans opted for something tragically less than ideal. They attempted to seize life for themselves, thus impugning God’s good intentions for their welfare. In this regard, they confused freedom to obey with the license to exploit.

There was no turning back, their access being barred by angelic guardians—lest they eat of the tree of life, and perpetuate their fallen condition. Their future seemed uncertain, in that they would have to contend with new situations and lacking former resources. It bears repeating, this was not the best nor the worst of times—since The Hound of Heaven continued the chase.

The fall-out of their defection was felt in the extended creation. Thus are we reminded by the complex interrelationship of the various facets of the creation order. Especially as it related to the critical role humans were to play. 

So life continued, not triumphantly but somehow. “This leads to the formation of people nurtured by God, capable of producing a few individuals of satisfactory spiritual nature, but in the main those who are obtuse, unfaithful, and frequently backsliding from the divinely given task.”11

The occasion of the deluge provides a classic case in point. Whereas man’s wickedness extended to every inclination of his heart, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Consequently, the patriarch and his family were delivered from the judgment that followed, and life was preserved.

In proverbial terms, “The line was drawn in the sand.” In particular, “The presence of the great spiritual conflict makes choice on the part of biblical characters necessary. Every are of human experience is claimed by God and counterclaimed by the forces of evil. There is no neutral ground.”12

Moreover, God characteristically minimizes the adverse effects of sin, while maximizing the results of righteous behavior. By way of confirmation, the Almighty observes that he is “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exod. 20:5-6). Consequently, our devotion does not consist of sentiment alone but in obedience.

We can expect that salvation history will continue to run true to course, even though this is not always evident. It may take some more creative approach we would have imagined. As C. S. Lewis observes, this elicits surprise.

Then, too, we are reminded that God is the answer to our prayers, rather than the means he employs. As in the case of the apostle Paul, when he allows: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, I was given a thorn in the flesh. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:7-9). Moreover, the illustration aptly speaks for itself.

Finally, we are able to discern God’s leading more clearly in looking back over the events that have transpired. We can often better sense how all things have worked together for good for those who love him and are called according to his gracious purpose (cf. Rom. 8:28). Then, as a result, we can anticipate the outworking of God’s benevolent purposes in response to our faithfulness.

* * *

 

 

BY FAITH

 

In retrospect, “By faith Abraham (Abram) when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:7). This serves to illustrate that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

By way of elaboration, “It is true that faith is not something established on an antecedent basis by indisputable evidence. But it is also the case that faith, once engaged in, enables one to reason and to recognize various evidences supporting it. This means that faith . . . works in concert with, not against, reason.”13 Accordingly, faith contrasts to credulity—giving rise to the expression reasoning faith.

Now the Lord enjoined Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). The text is intensive, meant to accent the high cost involved. It has not only social but religious connotations, since it involved leaving the patronage of the pagan deities—to realize more fully the ways of the Lord.

In return, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The divine call was thus associated with two sets of promises. Initially, I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. The patriarch was thereby assured that his posterity would compare favorably with the nations around the. This would be in keeping with the thesis, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Prov. 14:34).

I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. “Blessing, which corresponds to the English word ‘success,’ encompasses the well-being of a person or a people: good health, long life, numerous offspring, fertile fields and flocks, harmony within the clan, and freedom from oppression.”14 As such, it is a theme that persists throughout the passage.

Additionally, I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curse you I will curse. In particular, a curse might consist of frustrating one’s course of action, inflicting harm on him, or undermining his reputation. This is in context of a culture where one’s reputation was more highly esteemed than is of the current situation.

And all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. We are thus assured that God’s design is not parochial. Consequently, he chose one people in order to bless all. Moreover, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). This, in turn, a pertinent observation: “I don’t understand why anyone who chose to be a Jew (given the attending obligations); but since I am one, I feel obligated to live up to my covenant responsibilities.”

So Abram took leave of familiar surroundings, in anticipation of God’s benediction. There seems to be little in the way of abstract reflection in the patriarch’s response. Instead, he focuses on a deity who has revealed himself, and offers a new slant on life. Furthermore, it is unclear how thoroughly this supplanted his pagan past.  As a result, he was decidedly a work in progress.

In any case, we are assured that God was deliberately engaged in preparing him for this critical undertaking. This, moreover, recalls a time when I was scheduled for an extended ministry in the Far East: embracing seven countries, and thirteen educational institutions. Not only had I postponed my departure in lieu of pressing faculty responsibilities, but felt quite ill-prepared.

Overhearing my concerns, a well-meaning faculty colleague protested: “Nonsense, God has been preparing you for this all your lifetime.” Had I questioned his sage counsel, an elderly Chinese man would inform me that he had been earnest praying for one to direct him. Then, in conclusion, he observed: “You are the answer to my prayer.”

All things considered, “Abram believed the Lord, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). He thereby exemplified all those who would walk by faith. In greater detail, “The audacity of his believing stands out against the bleakness of his situation. Furthermore, Abram’s complaints show that a person of faith at times feels deep disappointment and frustration.”15 As a result, he provides a much needed reality check.

* * *  

    

 

THE AKEDA/BINDING

 

It came to pass that the Lord instructed Abraham: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (Gen. 22:2). “In the ancient Near East, the god that provides fertility is also entitled to demand a portion of what has been produced. This is expressed in the sacrifice of animals, grain and children.”16 Fertility was thus assured, and favor otherwise granted. 

Since the patriarch did not have the advantage of hindsight, he had to take this injunction at face-value. As noted earlier, he was still learning the ways of the Almighty.  In greater detail, “He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb. 11:17-19).

Early the next morning, the patriarch made preparation for his departure. On the third day, he looked up and saw the appointed place in the distance. “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there,” he instructed his servants. “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” 

As the two went on together, Isaac observed: “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the brunt offering, my son.” After which the two again went on together, a repetition calculated to express their close bond and common resolve.

Upon reaching the location, Abraham built an altar and arranged wood on it. He bound his son, and laid him on the altar. Then when he reach out to slay him, an angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” Incidently, one would suppose that the dramatic description was meant to assist those who would give an oral account of the episode.

“Here I am,” the patriarch indicated his availability.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” the angel instructed him. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” According to the sage, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but tools despise wisdom and discipline” (Prov. 1:7). “Wisdom is practical, aimed at conduct, but one must know the teachings of the sage and be guided by the fear of the Lord. The contrast between the wise and the fools in primarily in conduct; fools refuse to listen, that is, obey.”17

Abraham now looked up, and saw a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. Whereupon, he took the ram and sacrificed it—instead of his son. So the patriarch called the place The Lord Will Provide. This took on the proverbial saying, “one the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” In this manner, it continued to be recalled in Jewish tradition; and, more than any other, in terms of traditional piety.

Then the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your  only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” One would suppose that both analogies were in common use at the time.

“Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,” the messenger continued, “and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” We are thus reminded that great good can come from unequivocal obedience.

Then they returned to where the servants were awaiting them, and they set off together for Beersheba. Thus each had played a part in a corporate endeavor, leaving behind a cherished legacy.

Later on, we are told: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In this instance, there was no last minute reprieve. Consequently, love payed an exceedingly high cost.

* * *

 

 

ARRANGED MARRIAGE

 

My Nigerian students used to commend the wisdom of arranged marriages. They reasoned that more mature people would be aware of the finer nuances of life together. Conversely, they appreciated being consulted on the matter.

This comes to mind concerning an episode from patriarchal times. Now Abraham was well advanced in years. “Put your hand under my thigh,” he instructed his chief servant, “I want you to swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanite, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Gen. 24:2-4). 

While the symbolism has been variously accounted for, it seems meant to indicate that if the oath is violated, the person will be held accountable. In any case, it obligated the servant to give an account of his stewardship to the Almighty. Accordingly, even should he escape the wrath of man, he could not escape divine judgment.

The practice of marrying within one’s extended family could be for religious, social, and/or ethnic reasons. “In this text the endogamy seems motivated by the covenant that seeks to prevent Abraham and his family from simply being assimilated into the ethnic melting pot in Canaan.”18

“What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land?” the servant  inquired. “Shall I take your son back to the country you come from?”

While ruling out this alternative, the patriarch indicated that the Lord would “send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there.” Since it was God’s intent that they possess the promised land, he would assuredly provide the means.  This, in turn, would seem to confirm that the benevolent intent of the Almighty, whose concern is appreciatively embraced.

Upon arriving at his destination, the servant petitioned: “O God, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac.”

While he was still praying, Rebekah came out with a jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel, youngest son of Abraham’s brother Nahor. She was also very beautiful, and a virgin. When asked for water she not only complied, but offered to draw water for the servant’s camels as well. When she had finished, the servant gave her a gold nose ring, and two gold bracelets. This was by way of recognizing that she was the one appointed for Isaac. He then requested lodging.

When they heard from Rebekah all that had transpired, Laban (her brother) and Bethuel concurred: “This is from the Lord; we can saying nothing to you one way or the other. Here is Rebekah; take her and go, and let her become the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.”

Whereupon, the servant gave costly gifts to Rebekah, her brother, and mother. Then he and the men who had accompanied him ate and drank, and spent the night there. When morning had come, he petitioned: “Send me on my way to my master.”

  “Laban and her mother hesitated, requesting that Rebekah be allowed to remain with them for a while, before leaving. But the servant demurred, asking not be detained since Yahweh had granted success to his journey.”19 He perhaps envisaged that this could lead to an indefinite postponement, thus frustrating his mission.

They then proposed that Rebekah be consulted, and she readily gave her consent. So they relented, and blessed her, saying: “Our sister, may you increase to thousands upon thousands; may your offspring posses the gates of the enemies.” Since the gates were associated with planning strategy, the intercession was meant to frustrate their detrimental efforts.

Now Isaac went out to the field one evening to mediate, and as he looked up, he saw camels approaching. This signaled the arrival of Rebekah. He gladly brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and subsequently married her. “So she became his wife; and he loved her.” Thus the Lord honored the pious resolve of Abraham, and the faithful service of his servant.

* * *

 

 

FOR BETTER & WORSE

 

While the patriarchs were men of faith, they were not always faithful. This is illustrated by Jacob’s deceitfulness, and the lingering problems associated with it. When Isaac was well advanced in years and his eyesight impaired, he summoned his elder son Esau. “I am an old man and don’t know the day of my death,” he allowed. “Now then, get your weapons and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die” (Gen. 27:2-4).

Overhearing what was said, Rebekah instructed Jacob: “Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father. Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.”

“But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I’m a man with smooth skin,” he protested. “What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” His concern was manifestly over its possible consequences, rather moral implications.

“My son,” Rebekah admonished him, “let the curse fall on me. Just do as I say; go and get them for me.” So he did as she bid him.

“How did you find it so quickly, my son” Isaac inquired—supposing it was his elder brother Esau.

“The Lord your God gave me success,” he replied. This appears to have been a common way of referring to fortuitous events.

Accordingly, the patriarch blessed Jacob. In particular, the blessing pertained to fertility of the land, prominence among the nations, exercise of filial responsibilities, and deference to those who showed favor toward him. In proverbial terms, he was meant to “enjoy good things in God’s time.”

Jacob had scarcely left his father, when his brother returned. “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me?” Jacob inquired.—being at a loss to explain what had transpired. In this connection, “If the recipient of the blessing was other than the one intended, that person still received the blessing. The alternative was attributed to God’s design (although not necessarily approval). Isaac thus was powerless to reverse the course of events.”20

    “Do you have only one blessing, my Father?” Jacob entreated. “Bless me too, my Father!” Esau thus expresses much greater concern over the loss of his blessing that the earlier forfeiture of his birthright. Responding to his plea, Jacob composed a more modest alternative.

These words indicated that Esau was to find his living in a dry land. The blessing would enable him to survive in such a harsh land and prosper to some extent. He would live by his sword and serve his brother. Esau would have the skill to protect himself from hostile groups. Then Isaac gave him the promise that in time he would throw his brother’s yoke from off his neck.21 

He subsequently mused to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother.” When his mother heard of his intent, she sent her youngest sibling to stay with her brother Laban—until Esau’s fury was spent.

Accordingly, Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night. Taking one of the stones, he used it to prop up his head and fell fast asleep. Whereupon, he dreamed of a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord God, who declared: “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be as the dust of the earth. . . . All people on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring.”

Corresponding imagery in pagan mythology was meant “to provide a way for the deity to descend to the temple and the town. Jacob’s background would have given him familiarity with this concept, and thus he would conclude that he was in a sacred spot where there was a portal opened between worlds.”22

Consequently, when Jacob awoke from his sleep, he surmised: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” “How awesome is this place,” he observed. “This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

Early the next morning, he took the son on which he had slept, placed it on a pillar, and anointed it with oil. He then made a vow, promising that if the Lord would watch over him, and bring him safely back to his father’s house, he would devote himself to the Almighty. This would seem to recall the kind of bargains struck in the market place, portraying God as a self-serving merchant.

* * *

 

PROCEED TO SECTION TWO

 

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