The "In Between" Patriarch - Part 1

by Keith Macnaughtan

Abraham was a great man of God and patriarch of Israel. We have referred to him as "the father of the faithful" for such, indeed, he was.

Two generations after Abraham, Jacob came on the scene. He, as the father of the twelve sons who later became the ancestors of the tribes of Israel, is scarcely less famous than his grandfather Abraham. But in between these two great men of Holy Scripture lived Isaac, the son of Abraham and father of Jacob.

In contrast with both Abraham and Jacob, he seems to have lived a comparatively uneventful life. Less is said about him than of either Abraham or Jacob. Yet he, too, had his place in Bible history and in the outworking of the Divine purposes concerning Israel and the world. I have called him the "in between" patriarch, because, while he is overshadowed in some sense by his great father and his great son, by Abraham and Jacob, yet he provides a link in the chain of Israel's ancestry and of the Bible story.

His Birth Miraculous

His birth was long foretold by God and it was in itself the result of His miraculous intervention in human affairs. Sarah, his mother, had long passed the time when she could bear a child. Abraham, when God foretold the birth of a son to him "fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart: 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'"

The New Testament reveals that Abraham's laughter was not that of incredulity or disbelief, for Paul says, "Being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about a hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sarah's womb; he staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that what He had promised, He was able also to perform." (Romans 4:19-21)

Unlike his wife, whose laughter at first was the laughter of sheer incredulity (Genesis 18:10-15), Abraham "staggered not . . . through unbelief" .

But again Sarah laughed from sheer joy when later she said, "God hath made laughter for me; everyone that heareth will laugh on account of me . . . for I have borne him a son in old age." (Genesis 21:6,8)

Surrounded with so much mirth and joy at his birth, need we wonder that the child Sarah bore should be named 'Isaac' or 'Laughter', as again God had forenamed him? (Genesis 17:19)

The Child Named 'Laughter'

The first event of his life that we notice is his weaning, for which special occasion Abraham made a great feast. At the feast, Isaac's half-brother, Ishmael, mocked him, and indeed persecuted him, and this was seen by Sarah who (we may gather from the narrative) hated her servant-maid, Hagar, and her son. Perhaps her dislike is seen in the reference to "the son of Hagar the Egyptian" and her demanding that Abraham "cast out this bondwoman and her son, for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." (Genesis 21:9,10)

Poor jealous Sarah! Already she had shown her dislike of "this bondwoman" in treating her harshly. Indeed, there were faults on both sides, for Hagar had despised her mistress because of her childlessness, while Sarah had taken advantage of her position as mistress to oppress her slave-girl. (Genesis 16:4-6)

But now the matter came to a head with the actual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael.

Laws and Tablets

Again we see in these events concerning Abraham, Sarah and Hagar a reflection of the laws under which Abraham and Sarah had lived before their migration from Mesopotamia.

We quote Law number 70 of the Stele which contains the code of Hammurabi: "If the first wife of a man have borne him sons and the slave-girl has borne him sons, and the father in his lifetime states to the sons, You are my sons, he shall count them with the sons of his first wife. After the father goes to his fate" -- that is, dies -- "the sons of the first wife and the sons of the slave-girl shall take proportionate shares in the property of the paternal estate; AN HEIR BEING A SON OF THE FIRST WIFE SHALL CHOOSE AND TAKE THE FIRST SHARE OF THE DIVISION."

Other tablets found at NUZI, confirm such an arrangement. For example: "The adoption tablet of Nashwi, son of Arshenni. He adopted Wullu, son of Puhishenni . . . when Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be heir. Should Nashwi beget a son, the latter shall divide equally with Wullu but only Nashwi's son shall take Nashwi's gods . . . "

Or: "The tablet of adoption of Ehelteshup son of Pukiya; Zigi, son of Akuya, he adopted; accordingly all my lands, my buildings, and my earnings, my domestics, one part of all my property, to Zigi have I given. In case Ehelteshup has any sons of his own, a double portion shall they receive, and Zigi shall be second."

One Tablet in Particular

Here, it is true, the contrast is between an adopted son and sons born later to the father. But it can easily be seen that a similar rule would apply in regard to a son born of a secondary wife (as was Ishmael) and a son born to the real or primary wife (as was Isaac). Indeed, in the NUZI tablet 67 we have almost an exact parallel to the case of Ishmael and Isaac. This reads: "Gilimninu a wife to Shennima has been given. If Gilimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife, and if Gilimninu does not bear, Gilimninu a woman of the Lullu as wife for Shennima shall take. As for the concubine's offspring, Gilimninu shall not send them away." (Remember Abraham's reluctance to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael?) The tablet continues: "Any sons out of the womb of Gilimninu to Shennima may be born, all the lands, buildings, whatever their description, to these sons are given . . . "

Thus we see why Abraham was very grieved "on account of his son" Ishmael. Although Ishmael was but the son of the slave-girl, yet Abraham counted him as truly his son, even though the actual heir had now become Isaac, the son of Abraham's first or actual wife, Sarah. Indeed, it was not until God said to him, "Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah saith unto thee, hearken unto her voice, for in Isaac shall thy seed be called" –not till then did Abraham send away Hagar and Ishmael.

Death of Sarah and Hittite Tablets

Now we read of the death of Sarah; of Abraham's great grief for her; and of the arrangements he made with Ephron the Hittite to secure a burying-place for her body. Again we remark on the fact that archaeology has cast an abundant and most interesting light on these transactions. Let it suffice for us to notice that Abraham lived now among the Hittites, called here "the children of Heth."

Whereas Abraham in his own domestic affairs adhered to the laws which had governed him and Sarah in their original home-land of Mesopotamia, now, in his external dealings with the Hittites, he had to obey their laws in regard to the purchase of land. We see this in the "deed of sale" from which it would seem Genesis 23:17 is almost a quotation: "So the field of Ephron, which was in Machphelah, which was before Mamre, the field, and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession, in the presence of the children of Heth, before all that went in at the gate of the city."

The chapter bristles with points of interest which have been confirmed by the discoveries of archaeologists. Why mention, for instance, "the trees that were in the field" ? He needed only "the cave that was therein" , yet a special mention is made of the trees. Now it is known that, in Hittite sales, mention is made of trees in their (as we call them) "deeds of sale". Biblical archaeology completely destroys the baseless 'assured results' of Modernism and wonderfully bears out and confirms the simple history of the Scripture of Truth.

How these Bible accounts come to life! How real are the characters of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, - yes, and Ephron the Hittite too, who got quite a good price for the sale of his land! True, the circumstances and manner of life of these people were vastly different from ours. Yet, underneath the external things of life, we find them, too, to be living, breathing, flesh and blood men and women, subject to the same feelings and passions, hopes and longings, fears and desires as we are. And all, indeed, in need of the same saving and sanctifying grace of God.