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
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
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
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.
* * *
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
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!” Incidentally, one would suppose that the dramatic
description was meant to assist those who would give an oral account of the
“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.
* * *
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
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
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
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
* * *
For Better &Amp; 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
“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
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
* * *
Proceed to Section Two