Tag Archives: Isaac

Laughter From the Barren Places

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”  Gen. 17: 1-7, 15-16.

In today’s Lectionary reading, we  continue with the notion of covenant from last week’s Old Testament reading about Noah.  Here, we encounter Abram as an old man.  Twenty-four years earlier, God had instructed Abram to move from his home in Haran. Abram left behind his home and his family; he left behind his past.  Although Abram’s very name meant “father of the multitudes”, deep into their old age he and his wife Sarai had no children.  Despite God’s promises that his descendants would number as many as the stars, Sarai remained barren.

When God re-named him Abraham (“the father of many nations”), it must’ve seemed like a bit of a cruel joke.  And when God re-named his wife Sarah (which means “princess”), that must have made her wince a bit.  And when God told him that  wife would be the mother of nations and kings would spring from her, the whole thing must have seemed….well, just not very likely.

In the very next verse, we learn that Abraham laughed at the whole idea.  Gen. 17:17.  And when Sarah heard the news, she couldn’t help but laugh, too.  Gen. 18:12.  God has a funny sense of humor, and the whole idea struck them as a bit absurd.  And yet, very late in their lives, laughter (which translates as “Yizhak” or “Isaac”) will spring from their marriage.  Their laughter at the absurdity of God’s promise will become laughter of joy.  But, I’m getting ahead of the story…

In those days, at that time, being childless meant a deep and fundamental kind of failure.  (Some folks still perceive infertility that way today, or at least as deeply heartbreaking.) God’s repeated promises seemed to mock the reality of Abram and Sarai’s long struggle with infertility.  So when God Almighty (“El Shaddai”) repeats his promise, Abram falls to the earth, and we can imagine him hoping desperately that somehow the Almighty can bring his dreams to fruition and bless him with an heir.

As happens so often in Scripture, the significance of this event is marked by a re-naming.  We’ve seen it happen to Simon (“Peter), to Jacob (“Israel”), and now to Abram (“Abraham”) and Sarai (“Sarah”).  In each instance, the assignment of a new name implies both a new understanding of mission and a re-making of God’s creation.  It connotes a change so thoroughgoing that the old name simply would no longer suffice.  In this passage, the Lord reveals also himself, using a new name (“El Shaddai”) for the first time.  The name reflects this new covenantal relationship, implying limitless capacity.

This reading offers us several important insights during this Lenten season.  God calls each of us into the covenant He established with Abraham and which was revealed most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  He wants to take the places in our lives which are broken and barren and create new life there.  He wants to turn our laughter of incredulity into laughter of joy.  Just like Abraham, God calls us to walk with Him, so that all our steps are taken with and toward God.  And mostly, He wants us to become living icons of this covenant, to trust in His vision for all of creation and its redemption.  And, I think, God wants us all to laugh, deeply and with great joy.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Who Are You, My Son?

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?”  Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.”  But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success.”  Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”  He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.  He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.”  Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.  Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.”   So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him . . . .  Gen. 27:18-27.

In the Old Testament reading in today’s Daily Office, we find the story of Isaac blessing Jacob.  I confess that I’ve always loved the story of Jacob, in part because he is one of those “holy rascals” we’ve talked about before.  In part, I’m attracted to the story because my own name is the Anglicized version of the name “Jacob”.  And in part, I’m drawn to this story because it’s the story of a dysfunctional family, fraught with deceit and discord, finding a kind of redemption.

 Jacob offers us an interesting character; he’s nobody’s idea of a saint.  He’s deceptive, self-centered, and covetous.  His very name, meaning the grasper, or the supplanter, implies this.  While not completely wicked, like a lot of us, Jacob has a little larceny in his heart.  Like most of us, God did not choose Jacob because he was so holy; rather, he was holy because God chose him.

Jacob displayed these character traits from the very beginning.  As you’ll remember, Jacob and Esau were twins.  They struggled within their mother’s womb.  At birth, Jacob held on to his brothers foot, grasping at his brother.   Through sharp dealing, he acquires his brother’s birthright from Esau in exchange for a bowl of stew.  That birthright included the right of a double share of the inheritance, but perhaps more importantly determined who would run the family.

We find further evidence of familial dysfunction.  Isaac favors his son Esau; Rebekah favors Jacob.  Knowing that he was just not quite good enough for his father almost certainly shaped some of Jacob’s behavior.    Although Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob, Jacob still needed to deal with Isaac, who controlled the blessing of the father.  In order to obtain this blessing, Jacob deceives his father.  We find Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, participating in this little illusion.

We should remember, however, that Rebekah carries out God’s plan in this regard.  As we recall, the Lord told Rebekah:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”

Gen. 25: 23.  So, while Jacob has deceived his father and taken advantage of his brother, God will somehow redeem this shamefully poor behavior.  Jacob, and not Esau, will become the father of the nation of Israel.  But first, Jacob will run away from his family and his brother’s murderous intent, and only years later will God bring him safely back home to bear the covenant into the next generation.

But I think there’s still more at work in this passage.  Isaac asks, “Who are you, my son?”  While we recognize that Isaac’s sight has grown dim, and Jacob has disguised himself with skins to resemble his brother, reason teaches us that Isaac would still recognize his own son.  In fact, Isaac comes out and says that the voice was Jacob’s rather than Esau’s.  I wonder whether Genesis might be teaching us something else.

We’ve talked before about the contrast between physical blindness and spiritual insight.  I wonder whether, although he could not see physically, Isaac could spiritually see God’s hand in all this.  Perhaps Isaac knew that God was at work in all this artifice, and that God would do what he always did:  make something sacred and holy out of our mess.

Perhaps this story of the younger brother obtaining the birthright may also prefigure something we’ll hear Jesus teach about at great length.  In this story of the younger son receiving his father’s blessing we may see the beginning of the notion that “the first will be last and the last will be first.”  Maybe we’re seeing just the sort of inversion through grace that Jesus would preach about.  Perhaps we’re being inoculated to the notion that God’s justice works differently from ours, and God sees things we cannot yet see.

This story may have something else to teach us.  Jacob lies when Isaac asks him, “Who are you, my son?”  How many of us, when confronted by the Father, have similarly not been able to make an honest account of ourselves?  How many of us, standing naked before the Creator, can honestly answer for who we’ve become and what we’ve done?  And perhaps, like Isaac, our heavenly Father sees through our misrepresentation and self-deception, knowing that he can still work with these imperfect materials.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis