SPIRITUAL UPS AND DOWNS Genesis 18–21“May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more” (Gen. 18:32).Abraham hesitated to pray for any righteous persons in wicked Sodom, concerned that God would be angry. Yet shortly after, Abraham again lied about his relationship with Sarah. Like Abraham, we sometimes fail to understand God’s priorities. Abraham’s spiritual ups and downs make those priorities very clear for you and me.
Angelic visitors announced Sarah would give birth within a year (18:1–15). They also revealed God was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Hesitantly Abraham interceded (vv. 16–33). God destroyed the cities, but delivered Lot (19:1–29). Fear again moved Abraham to lie about his relationship with Sarah (20:1–18). Isaac, the promised child, was born at last (21:1–7), and Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar, was sent away (vv. 8–21).
Understanding the Text
Abraham’s hospitality Gen. 18:1–8. In Middle Eastern countries a great emphasis was placed on showing hospitality to strangers. This is illustrated in Abraham’s welcome of three men who appeared near his tent, in his invitation to them to eat, and in his haste to personally bring them food. Looking back on this incident, the writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews exhorts Christians, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). “The Lord said” Gen. 18:9–15. Some believe one of the three visitors Abraham entertained was a theophany, a pre-incarnate visitation by God the Son. We shouldn’t suppose that angels look like human beings in their true state. However, when angels visited Abraham and others they often took on human form. There is no record of angels appearing as women. In each biblical incident angels appeared to be men. The word angel in both Hebrew and Greek means “messenger.” Whether the spokesman was actually the Lord or not, he spoke with God’s authority. The Lord was about to fulfill His promise. Within the year Abraham and Sarah would have a child. “Sarah laughed” Gen. 18:12. The same Hebrew word used to describe Abraham’s earlier reaction (17:17) is used to describe Sarah’s response. Sarah need not have been afraid, and tried to lie. God expects initial incredulity. It is impossible and unnecessary to hide our feelings from God. “Then Abraham approached” Gen. 18:16–33. Before the visitors left, the Angel of the Lord told Abraham God was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because “their sin [is] so grievous.” At first Abraham simply stood there, stunned. Then he approached to intercede for any righteous who might be found in the cities. This is one of Abraham’s spiritual “highs”—a moment when his heart was truly in tune with God. We can learn much from this incident (see DEVOTIONAL). For now, note just one thing. Abraham was fearful and hesitant to press his request that God spare the cities for the sake of 50 good persons. Then for 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, and finally for 10. Abraham need not have worried. God was even more concerned than Abraham, and in fact spared the only “good” person to be found there: Lot. God cares deeply for all people. He is never upset when we plead with Him for others. Prayers of intercession are especially welcome, for in offering such prayers our priorities match God’s own. “Bring them out to us” Gen. 19:1–29. Only two of the angels proceeded to Sodom. They were offered hospitality by Lot, Abraham’s nephew. The men of the city demonstrated the extent of their wickedness, demanding that Lot send out his guests to become the victims of homosexual rape! When Lot refused, the Sodomites were determined to break into his home. Only the angels’ intervention, in striking the men with blindness, prevented them. Lot’s offer to send out his virgin daughters shocks us today (v. 8). It should. Yet the incident shows how deeply the responsibility of a host to his guests was felt in the ancient world. Lot’s offer should not distract our attention from the sin of Sodom and from the implications of homosexuality for a society. The Bible identifies all homosexual acts as sin, labeling them detestable, degrading, sinful, shameful, indecent, and perverse (cf. Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:22–28). Any society which condones, and then actually promotes such sin, as Sodom did, rushes headlong toward judgment. “Thought he was joking” Gen. 19:14. Told by the angels to flee the city, Lot hurried to warn the two young men engaged to his daughters. The text calls them “sons-in-law” because the dowrys had been paid and the marriage contracts settled, though the weddings had not taken place. Lot’s words of warning were taken as a joke. Lot had lived in Sodom too long without speaking out to be taken seriously now. It is one thing to love the sinner, as we are often urged to do. It is another to ignore the sin. Sodom reminds us that we are to confront sins in our society, exposing them for what they are, while retaining a deep and loving concern for the sinner. If we wish to warn others that God has determined a day in which He will judge the living and the dead, we cannot remain quiet on moral issues. Unlike Lot, who compromised when he settled down in the wicked city, we must speak out. “The Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom” Gen. 19:24. The ruins of the wicked cities were once thought to lie under the southern end of the Dead Sea. Recently ash-covered remains of five cities have been discovered on the plains just south of its slowly receding waters. Archeologists believe that an earthquake ignited bitumen deposits in the area, creating the inferno described in verses 23–26. Sin is no laughing matter. And divine judgment is no joke. “Lot and his two daughters” Gen. 19:30–38. The incident reported here reemphasizes a theme. Lot, in choosing to settle in a wicked city, not only compromised his own principles but also subjected his daughters to evil influences. As ever in the Old Testament, sins are shown to have lasting impact. Centuries later the Moabites and Ammonites, descendants of the children Lot’s daughters conceived, became enemies of Abraham’s offspring. “She is my sister” Gen. 20:1–18. Again Abraham, fearful that someone might kill him to obtain his wife, told Sarah to lie about their relationship. Again God intervened. Just a short time before, Abraham had been afraid to pray for any righteous persons who might be in Sodom. Now Abraham was not afraid to abandon trust in the Lord and to lie! Abraham’s spiritual “high” was followed by this spiritual “low.” When I attended the University of Michigan I worked full-time at a nearby mental hospital. I worked on the male receiving ward, where I conducted nightly Bible studies for any patients who wanted to attend. Some of the psychiatrists on the staff were opposed, and I prayed intently for my little ministry. Finally the issue was settled in a staff meeting, when the chief psychiatrist told his reluctant staff, “He probably should be speaking to you!”The victory was followed by a strange spiritual low. With the conflict over, I lost all motivation to continue the class, and had to struggle with myself to keep on going. Yet notice. Even though Abraham had clearly been in the wrong, God did not disown Abraham. Instead the Lord spoke to Abimelech, the ruler to whom Abraham had lied, and identified Abraham as His prophet. And, in response to Abraham’s prayers, God blessed the wronged king. Our spiritual highs often are followed by spiritual lows. When this happens God is as gentle with us as He was with Abraham. God does not disown us, for our relationship with Him rests on faith and not on our works. In time God restored Abraham and Sarah, even as He restored my motivation to minister to the men on my ward. He will restore you from your spiritual lows too. “God has brought me laughter” Gen. 21:1–7. Scripture now invites us to see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Sarah bore his son Isaac. Despite the years of anguish, Sarah at last knew joy. Sarah’s next words are significant for us. “Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” Why are these words significant? Because they imply that Sarah’s experience is a model of our own. We too may have years of waiting, years without laughter. Yet in the end we will be able to testify with Sarah, “God has brought me laughter too.” “Get rid of that slave woman and her son” Gen. 21:8–13. Sarah’s demand that Abraham exile Hagar and Ishmael was against custom. Abraham considered it an immoral act. Also, Abraham cared for his son Ishmael. It took a direct command of God to move Abraham to take the required step. Why was it necessary to expel Ishmael? God intended that the covenant promise given to Abraham should be transmitted through Isaac. Ishmael must be expelled so there would be no doubt about whose was the covenant line. But God softened the blow. God promised Abraham He would make Ishmael into a great nation too, “Because he is your offspring.” God has a purpose in the separations we experience. What a comfort when they take place, to realize that our loved ones are precious to God, and that He is committed to be with them even though we cannot. “God opened her eyes” Gen. 21:14–21. This has been a favorite passage of mine for years. Hagar and Ishmael, undoubtedly shaken and heartbroken, stumbled away into the desert. When their water ran out, Hagar gave up. Then, when everything was darkest, God spoke to her. He told her not to fear, and “opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” God didn’t create a new source of water. He simply opened her eyes to see what was already present. When we are in despair God very seldom needs to create something new to deliver us. Most often He simply opens our eyes to see the spiritual and other resources that are all around us. “The Eternal God” Gen. 21:22–34. The section ends with the report of a treaty defining a harmonious relationship between Abraham and the ruler he had earlier wronged. More significantly, Abraham’s relationship with the Lord is fully restored as well, and he “called upon the name of the Lord.” How significant the name given God here—the “Eternal God.” God is ours, forever. He is with us, forever. Nothing in the present, the past, or the future can change the fact that He is God, and that we are His.
God’s Heartbeat (Gen. 18:16–33)
When the Lord told Abraham He was about to judge wicked Sodom, Abraham was deeply concerned. He did not question the Lord’s right to judge the wicked. He was concerned that the righteous would suffer an undeserved fate along with them. Abraham’s concern moved him to plead with God. This is the Bible’s first recorded prayer of intercession, and teaches us two important lessons. First, Abraham was a little fearful that he might overstep in making repeated requests. Sometimes we may feel that our repeated pleadings for others might somehow “bother” the Lord. The Lord’s responsiveness to Abraham shows that He is not only willing to listen, but will respond to our prayers of intercession too. Second, Abraham’s fearfulness stemmed from a misunderstanding of God. Abraham was concerned that God might actually “sweep away” the city “and not spare” the righteous in it. Abraham gradually reduced the number he thought the city should be spared for from 50 to 10. Abraham left it at 10. But as the story is continued in chapter 19, we learn that there was only 1 person who might be considered even slightly good in the cities—and God brought that 1 person to safety. He even spared Lot’s 2 undeserving daughters! Abraham’s mistake was to think that he could possibly care more for other persons that God does! Abraham was finally willing to see nine righteous die so the wicked might be punished. But God was unwilling to see even one suffer unjustly. When we pray for others, let’s remember that God cares for them far more than we possibly can. We can plead for others without fear of wearying God. God will do everything possible to answer our prayers of intercession.